New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 46 November 27 to December 3, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

The Worst of Times

Vietnam: The Real War: A Photographic History from the Associated Press
R. Wayne Parsons

Photo by Hugh Van Es . Source: Hugh Van Es, "A U.S. Paratrooper Wounded in the Battle for Hamburger Hill..." 1969

Most photographs in the media have little effect on anything, perhaps other than persuading us to buy something. In my lifetime there have been two notable exceptions to this broad generalization: the American Civil Rights movement starting in the 1950s, and the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s. In both cases photos of events as they happened played a crucial role mobilizing public opinion against the set policy of the time. The current exhibition at Steven Kasher Gallery explores the second of these divisive events, the Vietnam War.

The Associated Press news bureau, the largest in Vietnam during the war, boasted an extraordinary group of talented photojournalists who took literally tens of thousands of photos over the course of that long and controversial conflict. For its recently published book Vietnam: The Real War, AP sifted through it archives to find material. Featuring some of the most iconic images from that era, the Kasher exhibition draws on that volume for the more than 100 photographs that comprise this show. About a third of the images are vintage prints; that the others are recent prints simply reflects the large number of negatives in the archive that were never before printed. Almost all are black-and-white.

One virtue of this exhibition is its scope and comprehensiveness. Images begin with the French presence in Vietnam in the early 1950s, continue through the escalation of the war in the mid 60s and after, and carry us through the mid 1970s when America withdrew and the country was united later under the control of the North Vietnamese Communists. The show is comprehensive not only chronologically, but also substantively, as it casts its light on ancillary aspects such as the American anti-war movement, domestic protests in South Vietnam against anti-Buddhist policies of the regime then in power, and the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Photo by Malcolm Browne . Source: Malcolm Browne, "Buddhist Monk, Thich Quang Duc Burns Himself to Death on a Saigon Street to Protest Persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese Government" June 11, 1963

If you were alive then and paying the slightest bit of attention you will remember many of these photographs: Malcolm Browne’s photo of a Buddhist monk self-immolating himself as a protest against the government in South Vietnam; Nick Ut’s shot of a naked nine-year old girl screaming in agony as she runs toward us on a road after being napalmed; Eddie Adams’s image of the South Vietnam police chief executing a captured and bound suspected Viet Cong with a point-blank pistol shot to the head.

Photo by Eddie Adams . Source: Eddie Adams, "Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnamese Chief of the National Police, Fires his Pistol into the Head of Suspected Viet Cong Official Nguyen Van Lem on a Saigon Street Early in the Tet Offensive" February 1, 1968

Other photographers contributing standout work include Horst Faas, Art Greenspon, Henri Huet, Rick Merron, and Hugh Van Es, to name only a few. Faas emerged as a “hero” of the news corps, assuming that word has any real meaning in such a context; he was severely wounded in Vietnam in 1967, but was able to continue his career both as a photographer and as a photo editor. It is a result of his perseverance and insistence in the latter capacity that two of the most famous photos of the war, the above-noted images by Eddie Adams and Nick Ut, were published. Higher-ups in the AP bureaucracy did not want the Ut image released, as it violated the agency’s ban on nudity, especially that of prepubescent girls. Faas sent it out on the wire service anyway. Which is more objectionable, a nude nine-year old girl, or that same girl being subjected to a napalm attack?

The exhibition includes images of Vietnamese peasants crouching in muddy water to escape a firefight; helicopters sweeping across the sky like some modern plague; interrogations, sometimes notable for their brutality, of villagers and suspected VC; soldiers (both US and Vietnamese) on patrol; wounded soldiers being treated in combat conditions; wounded or dead civilians caught in crossfire; soldiers relaxing and being entertained; executions of suspected VC. All of the photographs in this display are important documents of the era; many also succeed aesthetically, not so surprising given the skill of these photographers. Especially noteworthy is Art Greenspon’s photo of a soldier raising his arms to the sky as if beseeching a higher power for deliverance and solace — which in fact he was, as he is signaling a Medevac helicopter to land in a small clearing in the jungle to take away wounded soldiers.

Photo by Nick Ut . Source: Nick Ut, "Severely Burned in an Aerial Napalm Attack, Children Run Screaming for Help Down Route 1 Near Trang Bang, Followed by Soldiers of the South Vietnamese Army’s 25th Division," June 8, 1972

There are, of course, stories behind each of these photos — human stories of tragedy, of bravery, of hubris, of the suffering of innocents, and of all the other aspects of war that make it mostly horrific but occasionally uplifting. Most of these stories have not been and never will be told. One that has been is the aftermath of the image of the naked napalmed girl, Kim Phuc. Fortunately, she was treated for her burns. After fourteen months of hospitalization and seventeen surgical procedures she was able to return home. She entered medical school and was sent to study in Cuba. In 1992 she and her husband had an opportunity to obtain political asylum in Canada. Since then she established a foundation to aid children victimized by war. She has been a public speaker, the subject of a documentary film, and of a book about her life and experiences, and has received honorary degrees and other awards. It’s an inspiring story, a rare example of one that beats the odds and has a happy ending. Google it and see for yourself.

Photo by Horst Faas . Source: Horst Faas, "Women and Children Crouch in a Muddy Canal as they Take Cover from Intense Viet Cong Fire " January 1, 1966

But let it be clear: this is an emotionally wrenching exhibition, especially for those of us who lived through the political turmoil and protests here at home; I can hardly imagine what it must be like for those were actually there.

Do the victors write history? Perhaps, perhaps not – we don’t hear much about Vietnamese histories of the war. But one certain thing about the Vietnam War is that the losers photographed it — and did an exceptionally good job.

Vietnam: The Real War: A Photographic History from the Associated Press

Steven Kasher Gallery
521 W 23rd St.
Chelsea         Map

212 966 3978

Thursday, October 24 to
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Hours: Tue-Sat, 11 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat