Monday 7 March 2016

Picture Post No 10: Faceless Fighters of Vietnam, 1972

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t that what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Somewhere in the Nam Can forest, Vietnam, in 1972 ( Image: Vo Anh Khanh)
In the pciture above, faceless activists meet in the Nam Can forest, wearing masks to hide their identities from one another in case of capture and interrogation.

For many Americans, the dominant image of the Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies during the war was as a ghostly enemy sneaking down the Ho Chi Minh trail defying US bombs and apparently inured to suffering.

The visual history of the Vietnam War has been defined by such images. There is Eddie Adams’ photograph of a Viet Cong fighter being executed; Nick Ut’s picture of a naked child fleeing a napalm strike, and Malcolm Browne’s photo of a man setting himself alight in flames at a Saigon intersection.

These scenes were captured by Western photographers working alongside American or South Vietnamese troops. But the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had photographers of their own. Almost all were self-taught, and worked anonymously, or under a nom de guerre, viewing their role as part of a larger struggle.

‘For us, one photo was like a bullet.’ 

As one of the revolutionary photographers, Nguyen Dinh Uu, put it much later:

‘Processing chemicals were mixed in tea saucers with stream water, and instead of darkrooms, film was developed at night.’

Another photographer, Lam Tan Tai recalls how they came up with a new form of flash photography in order to picture fighters and villagers who were living in bomb shelters and tunnels.

‘We emptied gunpowder from rifle cartridges onto a small handheld device and then lit the gunpowder with a match. The burning powder provided all the light we needed.’

For Mai Nam:

‘The vast dark forest was my giant darkroom. In the morning I’d rinse the prints in a stream and then hang them from trees to dry. In the afternoon I’d cut them to size and do the captions. I’d wrap the prints and negatives in paper and put them in a plastic bag, which I kept close to my body. That way the photos would stay dry and could be easily found if I got killed.’

These photographers worked in the shadow of death whether by bombing, gunfire or from the perils of the jungle on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Nine out of ten Vietnamese photographers perished whether by bullets, bombs, or disease. Many, such as Vo Anh Khanh, working clandestinely in the South, could never get their images to Hanoi and the media, but instead exhibited them to fighters and villagers in the mangrove swamps of the Mekong Delta - to raise morale.

Each image was precious. Today, with digital images essentially infinite, it is revealing to read that one photographer, Tram Am, had only a single roll of film which he had to use judiciously for the whole duration of the war.

In the early 1990s, two photojournalists, Tim Page and Doug Niven, decided to try to track down surviving Vietnamese photographers. One had a dusty bag of never-printed negatives, and another had his stashed under the bathroom sink. Vo Anh Khanh still kept his pristine negatives in a U.S. ammunition case, with a bed of rice as a desiccant.

One hundred eighty of these unseen photos and the stories of the courageous men who made them are collected in the book: Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War from the Other Side (National Geographic, 2002).

These pictures tell the story of a simple, rural people fighting the most technologically advanced and militarized nation on earth - and finally defeating it. They reveal a reality that nobody outside of the local experience could truly imagine. Looking back today, at Vietnam itself, in many ways their sacrifices seem to have been for nothing. Yet perhaps their struggle, and the images it spawned served a more profound purpose.

Life is not a neatly defined itinerary as these safeguarded masked women neatly standing in line might seem to imply. Rather, there are always several layers of meaning. Indeed, as one Vietnamese proverb puts it: ‘If you travel with Buddha, wear a saffron robe, but if you go with spirits, wear paper clothes.’

Read (and see) more at


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

A very interesting piece. For me it calls to mind, in our fragmented society, that there are different worlds nearby. We can only have a healthy society when we know and understand them.

Perig Gouanvic said...

There is also a very striking parallel with a new kind of resistance that we are seeing today, and that has an icononography that is very similar to this one: anonymous.

Thousands of activists are resisting and hacking the powers-that-be by using technology, for sure, but they also resist the whole technology of profiling. And we can think of even more people using aliases to edit Wikipedia or to contribute to conversations online.

When a Robin Hood-style hacker is captured comma just like these women, he cannot identify his co-conspirators.

Perig Gouanvic said...

sorry for the "comma", i'm dictating more often than not...

docmartincohen said...

Thank for the thughts, Thomas and Perig. What I got from the image was a 'perspective shift'. I assumed the figures were hiding from some wider public - like the KKK might hide themselves. These days aactivists hide in masks so that their images can be made public without the 'security' services being able to see who to target.

But in fact they were hiding from each other...

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Martin,

Thank you for highlighting this particular insight about the photographers who (quote) could never get their images to Hanoi and the media, but instead exhibited them to fighters and villagers in the mangrove swamps of the Mekong Delta - to raise morale.
Being unidentifiable to protect each other seems to be a spontaneous act and elevates the identification with a shared cause.

But what is hidden behind being hidden? Once battles were arranged on open fields. The agreement was a fight. Is the disagreement of fight a symbol for covering up identity?

Unknown said...

Can someone help me out on who these "activists" are and what were their collective goals.
Is the term activist and fighter/soldier interchangeable here? Thanks

docmartincohen said...

My understanding is that there was a whole parallel society that had to hide fduring the Vietnam war. The post mentions the photographers, working as propagandists. So these women were probably not fighters/ soldiers, no, if nonetheless part of a resistance army in the wider sense.

zakkidua said...
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Anonymous said...

The first woman looks western? Blonde hair etc? Not Asian did they have influence from Russia? What is the name of this group? Thanks!

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