- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

By Tim Page
Edited by Doublas Niven and Christopher Riley
National Geographic Society, $50, 240 pages, 180 black & white photographs

As a theater of war, Vietnam became the place where primitive weapons held their own against the best and the brightest of a superpower's arsenal. In rough parallel to the sharpened bamboo stakes that villagers used so effectively, enemy combat photographers also rigged bamboo and stone under the cover of midnight to help make a powerful visual history of their struggle. Unfortunately, the rest of the world and even most Vietnamese had never seen these pictures until the book "Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War from the Other Side" appeared along with a traveling companion exhibit.
In 1954, to capture one of the earliest pictures in the collection, a Vietnamese militiaman stripped the camera off of a conquered French trooper and used it against him. Ordinary black and white film was so precious that to avoid ever losing an entire roll, the Vietnamese would peel off just half at a time for developing. One photographer carefully paced himself through only 36 frames of film for the entire war, because he feared he wouldn't be able to scrounge up another roll.
During the next 21 years, 90 percent of the photographers who crouched alongside the communists died from bullets, bombs, dysentery and malaria. A cameraman once complained to Ho Chi Minh about the difficulties of producing pictures under such nightmarish hardship. "Obstacles make you clever," replied Ho, who had worked a few years in Paris for a studio photographer and would not hear such excuses.
The only way Tran Binh Khoul could power his electronic flash during a nighttime attack came from strapping a leftover car battery on his back. Trapped by American B-52s in a honeycomb of cramped tunnels, Mai Nam improvised a little light by opening an AK-47 cartridge, dusting the gunpowder on a square of paper and turning it into a burst of bright flame with the help of a match.
Starless black nights along the Ho Chi Minh Trail gave Dinh Dang Dinh his only darkroom. He built a wooden enlarger on a stone base and fitted it with his camera's lens. Mirrors, oil lamps and flashlights exposed the printing paper. Homemade bamboo trays became leak-proof with beeswax he gathered himself. Mountain streams washed his film with a purity confirmed by each negative's archivally long life ever since.
For long years while operating undercover in the south's Mekong Delta, Vo Anh Khanh never got his pictures published. He did manage to mount an exhibition in a mangrove swamp that attracted villagers from miles around, just to see and hear about fighting throughout the countryside.
While waist deep in mud and blood, the act of photography itself may have seemed like a luxury to Vietnamese fighters, especially since their efforts rarely saw the light of day. Hanoi cared only about showing the world humiliated American prisoners or Communist Party group shots. Simply distributing such pictures properly took so long that they would be hopelessly out-of-date by Western news standards. Even in 1974, their fastest turnaround time for breaking news was two days. Chronic shortages of ink and paper kept "Viet-Nam Pictorial," the national magazine for photojournalism, appearing only sporadically. Covers and centerspreads had to be color-tinted by hand.
Just like Ho, photo editors all over the world have little use for photographers' hard-luck stories; but any photo editor would have been stunned by the power of what Vietnamese photographers managed to bring back.
Among the earliest pictures can be seen an orphanage gnawed by fire power back into bricks, a large French transport plane going down in flames during the climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu, and the ejection of French soldiers from the Hang Dau barracks in October of 1954, after the Geneva Accords bisected Vietnam into north and south.
The photographer Duong Thanh Phong produced quite an avant-garde composition in 1966 showing peasants passing along baskets of earth dug out of the tunnels at Cu Chi. Seated on woven mats upon the otherwise bare ground, Viet Cong commanders study a cloth map of Saigon to plan the watershed Tet Offensive of 1968. In June of 1972, Doan Cong Tinh found more peasants picking over the tail and fuselage of a U.S. plane shot down into a rice paddy outside of Hanoi.
For a chapter called simply "The Trail," Le Minh Truong offered a verticle panorama of the Ho Chi Minh highway running down the side of a cliff, at this point made passable only with a rickety scaffold of freshly cut trees. His colleagues Thanh Tung and Le Chi Hai showed the difficulty of carrying heavy arms across deep, rushing water.
Vo Anh Khanh found one of the most elegant and poignant moments in 1970. It shows Viet Cong nurses beneath a canopy of mosquito netting, knee-deep in a mangrove swamp, as they welcome the next young soldier into their battlefield hospital for brain surgery.
"This is too beautiful to be true," worried the American editor Doug Niven when he first saw the negative, suspecting that the whole thing might have been staged. Checking the frames that came just before and after it though proved how casually and authentically it had first been seen. Vo Anh Khanh never faltered in his memory of the events, and only had taken the drama of the scene for granted. It was just one more day, one more scene that he had completely forgotten by the end of the war.
When Mr. Niven decided to go to Vietnam and attempt the gathering of these pictures, he was amazed to learn that no one else had even tried to during the previous 25 years. It took him 16 trips to uncover the original material, some of which literally had to be pulled out from under a photographer's kitchen sink. Most of the 30 photographers who contributed to the book had never seen their negatives printed, or if so, never larger than what we would think of as drugstore prints.
Certainly not for fame then did photographer Ly Way slither along at night beside commandos trying to infiltrate the Thuan Nhon military base in 1974. Giving away their position by shooting flash pictures was not a problem because so many other flashes of light were being caused by drifting flares.
Combat photographers rarely bring back pictures taken while standing up before enemy fire, but one unknown Vietnamese managed to capture a 30-yard-wide stretch of fire zone in broad daylight, which was all that separated Viet Cong in the foreground from clearly visible South Vietnamese troops that were shooting back at them.
Finally, in March of 1975 the port of Hue can be seen, courtesy of Lam Hong Phone, littered with thousands of pages of scattered files and dozens of stripped down trucks and armored vehicles. Fleeing South Vietnamese troops shed thousands of American combat boots and hats on the outskirts of Saigon and left them to bake on the asphalt, hoping to blend back into their civilian lives. This simple, surreal moment discovered by Duong Thanh Phong is as evocative as any scene from the crush at the U.S. Embassy on April 30 in Saigon.
Unfortunately, most of the pictures in the first third of the book are not as pure. Body language betrays a false, wooden camera-consciousness. The people obviously had been gathered together for no other purpose than to put on a brave face and have their picture taken. It is these pictures of Jane Fonda or Fidel Castro squired around by smiling NVA, or else the captured, wounded and dead ARVN or U.S. troops that will boil the blood of many American viewers. For them, it will still be too soon to see such pictures.
"The trick here is see beyond the propaganda of the pictures into a different culture," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning photo critic Henry Allen in the foreword. Given enough time and distance, old warriors can't help but want to know their enemies better. The anger and fear of battle mature into a clear-eyed, grudging respect, no matter which side happened to win that day long ago. That's why U.S. veterans and their families may want to own this book.
During the Vietnam War, American field commanders complained that the enemy always vanished from the battlefield, even taking back into the shadows their own dead and wounded. In these pictures, at last, they can be seen, frozen amongst the trees, alerted like deer, just a moment before bolting back into dark undergrowth.
"For Americans," observes Mr. Niven, the book's principle editor, "up until now, this enemy never had a face." Over one hundred pictures from the book have been assembled at the Explorer's Hall of National Geographic in Washington, D.C. and will remain on view to the public at no charge through August 11.

J. Ross Baughman is photo editor for The Washington Times.

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