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Another Vietnam: North Vietnamese Images Show Unseen Si

National Geographic News
January 24, 2003
 
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Photographer Douglas Niven made more than 16 trips to Vietnam to look for images made by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong photographers during the Vietnam War. He found thousands of images, many of which had never even been made into prints.

He also met retired war photographers in distant corners of Vietnam, stirring fading memories and emotions.

The result is Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War from the Other Side, the first published collection of images of the conflict made by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong photographers. Niven and Christopher Riley edited the book, a publication of National Geographic Books.



Niven worked as a photographer in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for Agence-France Presse from 1992 to 1995. In 1996 he and Riley co-edited The Killing Fields (1997, Twin Palms Publishers), a book of photographs of Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge.

He discusses the book Another Vietnam in an interview with National Geographic News.

NG News: For many people in the West, the Vietnam War has been defined by several iconic images. But they were all seen through the lenses of American and other Western photographers. Your book shows us another perspective of the conflict, which the Vietnamese call the American War. Will this book redefine the popular view of the war?

Niven: I grew up as a kid with pictures of the Vietnam War and can probably recite at least ten images in my head that still stick in my memory. I think a lot of Americans have the same collective memory of the Vietnam War. I was curious about what pictures filled the memories of the Vietnamese people and if their view of the war was impacted by images in the same way. This book is an attempt to put together pictures showing how Vietnamese people viewed the war, and what those photographs looked like.

Isn't it odd that no one has thought of doing this before? The war was over more than a quarter of a century ago.

I also was surprised that nobody had done it before. When I first went to Hanoi, I expected that there had at least been a Vietnamese attempt to do this. There have been a few Vietnamese publications with pictures from the war, but never a comprehensive attempt to put all the war images together. There hasn't even been a North Vietnamese book on the war.

Over time, I found out that many of the Vietnamese war photographers didn't even know each other. So it was fun to put together this collection and also to see the photographers getting to know one another for the first time and viewing one another's pictures.

So the Vietnamese government was supportive of this project?

The Vietnamese were very enthusiastic and supportive. They opened every door for me. I asked to look at everything, including many catalogs of sensitive pictures, and they just opened up the archives. A lot of those images are not flattering to them, but they still said "help yourself."

They gave me free rein over all their pictures. They did suggest certain pictures they felt were important, but my criterion as a photographer was always to pick the best images and then I could factor in other elements after that. In the end, this is really a book of photography.

How did you go about tracking down the former war photographers and finding images that were not in the official archives?

Old-fashioned investigative journalism. I started with the official channels and the government news agency. I hit it off with them pretty well, and in turn they introduced me to other people. I then worked through a large photographers association they have in Vietnam. Eventually, by word of mouth, I came across photographers who served in the war. I started getting names and addresses of people and I tracked them down into the far corners of Vietnam. I think I made about 20 trips in all; definitely at least 16. I was living in Bangkok at the time so it was pretty easy to go back and forth.

Tell us about some of the photographers you met. I believe you came across a war photographer who had never developed his film.

There was one photographer, actually a reporter who had a camera. He used only one roll of film for the duration of the war because didn't know how to change it and he was too scared to open the camera in case he ruined the film. The film had 72 frames, including some real candid gems. They were basically snapshots of people and scenes he came across, and were especially interesting since someone not trained in photography made them.

Other photographers worked in very difficult conditions in the war. They would often process their film in the middle of the night, under the stars, while they were out on the Ho Chi Minh Trail or in the jungle. They didn't have any dark rooms or safe lights.

Some photographers mixed their chemicals in little teacup saucers, and often they would process only half a roll at a time because they did not want to risk ruining the entire roll. They mixed chemicals with their bare hands and did not use watches or timers. They got their water from nearby creeks. But in the morning they had their images.

Most of the images in the book were processed in conditions like these.

Many of the pictures you have in the book were official North Vietnamese propaganda images. Why did you select propaganda for publication?

I thought including a few of them was important historically, aside from the fact that they were interesting images and frequently entertaining.

One really classic picture shows soldiers pretending to fire at wooden model enemy airplanes strung along a wire. When we see images like this, we can readily identify them as propaganda, but they're also interesting from a documentary perspective. The purpose of that image was to show the Vietnamese people that with World War II rifles it is possible to shoot down American warplanes if they used the proper technique of shooting in front of the plane's path. In fact, they did shoot down some American planes and helicopters with World War II carbines, and they used this same technique to shoot down even more planes once they had bigger guns. So this picture illustrates a home-grown technique that, in the end, was very useful to them.

Another propaganda image I found interesting was of a bunch of Viet Cong soldiers posing for the camera. It looked as if they had seen the western movie The Wild Bunch. I wondered if they had seen foreign films that inspired this very macho pose they're in. It is curious in a historical sense to see what kind of visual role models they might have had in their minds, while living in the jungle fighting a guerilla war.

What are your favorite images in this collection?

There are five touching portraits in the book that really resonate for me. They are beautiful, elegant portraits that are also interesting because at one point in the war someone—I've never been able to identify who took the pictures—either was assigned or, more likely, had the idea to go around and document what he said were the victims of "American aggression," the people affected by the war.

One of the portraits is of a woman who has just lost her family in the bombing. Her face tells the story. Another is of a child standing with his mother. He has lost a leg, again in the bombing.

These pictures show the personal impact of the war on ordinary people. It's interesting to me that in the middle of the war the photographer had the foresight to say, "I'm going to do a portrait series of the people affected by this war." It was a very prescient idea, especially considering the tense environment in which they were taken. And I think the images are also very beautiful and moving.

Two other photographers have the majority of the pictures in the book. One photographer, Mai Nam, was limited to the North during the war and was not really a combat photographer per se. He was really more of an artist. He went from place to place and saw beauty amidst the destruction of war. Mai Nam was his own boss, and his personal mission was to capture daily life during wartime. His work is very documentary in style, and he was able to capture some wonderful moments in time.

Mai Nam's counterpart, Doan Cong Tinh, was a real combat photographer. He was right in the thick of it. He was an army photographer and in the middle of some very intense battles, mostly along the DMZ and southern Laos. He had no telephoto lens and was known for standing up during battles to take his pictures while his fellow soldiers were hunkering down in trenches. It's a miracle that he lived through the war. Doan Cong Tinh's images are more attuned to American tastes because they are action pictures. Ironically, that makes them less interesting to the Vietnamese. His images are bold and involved great risk. His friends all called him the King of the Battlefield.

How many images did you collect and how many did you select for the book?

I went through thousands of images and I printed about 350 in all. About 150 of these are in the book, and a selection of what's in the book is on exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York.

What is the overall impact of this collection of photographs? What do the images tell us after all these years?

With these pictures from Vietnamese photographers and all the pictures we already know about from Western photographers, we can now have a much more complete understanding of the war. I don't think either side by itself is a complete or thorough accounting. Together they can give us a much richer understanding of the war.

The Vietnam War experience is still very relevant to today's younger generations. After all, we're still watching television documentaries on the Civil War, and the Vietnam War is much closer to us than that.

The Vietnam War has a very strong effect on our country's leadership even today. Leaders such as Colin Powell served in Vietnam, and others have learned from them. George W. Bush refers to the Vietnam War when he talks about the current situation in the war against terrorism. Many of the techniques and tactics that were used in Afghanistan can be traced back to the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War is still a very recent part of our history and is also a conflict we still do not completely understand. These photographs help fill in some of the gaps.

Do you think the photographs you have found will help Americans by putting a human face on their erstwhile enemies?

That's one of the wonderful things about this. These pictures help us bring a sense of closure about the war. A lot of American veterans go to Vietnam to make peace with themselves and their experience there. For many, the experience of the war has for the last 25 years or so been a kind of raw memory. Going back to Vietnam is often very cathartic for them. These images can help us heal those same wounds, too.

Vietnam and the United States today have full diplomatic relations and a trade agreement. The relationship between them is like that between any two countries. Vietnam is not our enemy any more. These images can help close the wounds by giving us a more complete understanding of the war.

The images do humanize the other side. I, for one, was curious what the Viet Cong really looked like. I saw so many pictures taken during the war, but I never really knew what the Viet Cong looked like. It became a real mystery to me over time.

I also wanted to find out what it was like during the war for the North Vietnamese people and who these people were who fought against the Americans. After finding these photos, I was finally able to put a face on a heretofore faceless enemy. They are people just like us, and just like we were committed to our cause, so were they to their cause.

Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War from the Other Side (National Geographic Books, ISBN 0-7922-6465-7, January 2002, U.S. $50), is by British combat photographer and author Tim Page and edited by photojournalists Douglas Niven and Christopher Riley. For information about purchasing a copyClick here.
A National Geographic Television documentary, Vietnam's Unseen War: Pictures from the Other Side,featuring Tim Page's interviews with the photographers as well as previously unseen North Vietnamese film footage from the war, airs onNational Geographic Explorer on MSNBC, January 26, 8p.m. ET/PT.
 

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