Warring Visions of Vietnam

We are often told that the war in Vietnam was fought in pictures. However, the photographs that are most widely circulated were those taken by the Western press. This project explores the images produced by diverse Vietnamese communities, by photographers working for communist news agencies, for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and from among the diaspora. A close look at these disparate visual archives suggests that these groups struggled to secure the moral resolve, political allegiance, and cultural memory of spectators.

Lookout Mountain Laboratory.

Black April in Canada

By Thy Phu Posted June 8, 2015

Figure 1  Gratitude on display at the Thank You Canada Gala organized by the Vietnamese Association of Toronto, April 12, 2015. Author's collection.

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The Vietnamese Association of Toronto holds frequent gatherings for its community members who have settled across this sprawling megacity. But the most recent event, “Thank you Canada,” was no ordinary fête.

“Thank you Canada” marked Black April, a day commemorating the end of the war in Viet Nam, on April 30th, 1975, in a big way. The event was held on Saturday, April 12th, 2015, at a banquet hall in a nondescript strip mall in Scarborough, one of many that cluster this scrappy working-class suburb of Toronto Canada. For the refugees and VIPs in attendance, this day, the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, was special.

Uniformed policemen guarded the entrance with polite attention. The men wore carefully pressed suits, the women tightly fitted outfits, or, more often, ao dai, the elegant traditional Vietnamese dresses reserved for special occasions. (In my go-to outfit of blazer over skinny jeans, I felt out of place. My signature style of casual dressiness, which has served so well at other work functions and should have been appropriate for the community event I had been told to expect, just wouldn’t cut it here.) Adorned on the walls of the restaurant were black-and-white photos documenting the journey of Vietnamese boat people to Canada. They led a trail to a stage where the flag of the fallen Republic of Vietnam, cheerful crimson stripes against a bright yellow background, stood sentry next to the iconic national maple leaf. 

Figure 2. Photographs of the second wave of refugees, who arrived in Canada during the Indochinese humanitarian crisis in the late 1970s through to the 1980s. Author's collection, April 12, 2015.                                                                                  


Although prominent refugees such as Phan Thi Kim Phuc (the so-called “girl in the picture”) and a well-known Operation Babylift orphan where in attendance, they were not the VIPs. This honor was reserved for the politicians, who stood out, white men in dark suits adorned with scarves bearing the colors of the fallen Republic of Vietnam flag. Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Alexander, drew the loudest applause. He had reason to smile.

Alexander had recently authorized the visas of 105 refugees, who had been stranded and stateless in Thailand for twenty-five years. One of these families landed at Pearson International Airport on Saturday, November 15th, 2014, where they were greeted with much fanfare by the Vietnamese community.

The Conservative Party, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s leadership, has drawn fire from critics for recent changes to immigration policy that have have been less than welcoming to refugees, instead favoring wealthy applicants. But if any detractors were in the banquet hall that night, whatever criticism they might have voiced were drowned by an effusive tide of declarations: “Thank you,” the emcee shouted. The audience roared, “Canada!”

The VIPs basked in the attention, this call-and-response staged for the politicians’ benefit. It was an election year, and such a spotlight on the sitting conservative government likely earned them votes that night, never mind that the hard work of advocacy and sponsorship was done by the Vietnamese community itself. For its part, the Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship had only approved the visas.

After his address, Minister Alexander moved from table-to-table, glad-handing group after group, making sure to pause at the group next to mine. This was where the refugees from Thailand were sitting. It was a photo-op that no savvy politician would miss.

Figure 3. Chris Alexander poses with recently arrived refugees, who had been stranded and stateless in Thailand. Unknown photographer, April 12, 2015.

If you look closely, you can, almost but not quite, see me in the background, equivocal witness to this scene of welcome and gratitude. However, the photograph records a direct visual exchange between the state and its newly minted subjects. What it does not show are the networks that join this group of refugees with an older generation, which had done so much to bring these newest community members to Canada, not to mention the connections and disconnections between these varied refugee stories. Welcome and gratitude are gestures and expressions that, for all their toothy sincerety, tidy up a mess of feelings that bind these groups together.

Lookout Mountain Laboratory

By Kevin Hamilton and Ned O'Gorman Posted December 16, 2013

Lookout Mountain Laboratory.

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We know their names: Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, Argonne, and so on. These are America’s great cold war (and now post-cold war) research hubs, the birthplaces of “big science,” sites of secrecy and security at which weapons of shock and awe were forged. These are America’s nuclear weapons laboratories.

But we hardly remember anything about the laboratories that gave these infamous national laboratories their diffuse historical and institutional presence, whether in the clinical wards of hospitals, behind the cinder-block walls of universities, upon the remote islands of the Pacific, or, as our work explores, up in the hills of Hollywood. 

Hidden in Laurel Canyon above Los Angeles was a cold war experimental site known as Lookout Mountain Laboratory, or the 1352nd Photographic Division of the U.S. Air Force. Lookout Mountain functioned as a distinct kind of nuclear weapons laboratory, a space where specialized cultures of labor and knowledge collaborated to technically and ideologically frame America’s nuclear weapons complex for public, private, and state audiences.

“Framing” is, of course, a ubiquitous concept in media studies. (And perhaps for this reason not the best concept for us to use here. We are certainly open to suggestions.) We are struck, however, by the metaphorical conjunction between the film frame and the media frame. This metaphorical conjunction materialized in our study: Lookout Mountain Laboratory’s technical work—much of it experimental and innovative—could not be separated from its cold war ideological work. Here the cold war camera was reconfigured as an ideological instrument.

Cameras, along with mechanical and later digital computers, were the most important “new” information technology in America’s rise to nuclear power in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.  Cameras were scientifically crucial, as they could be rigged to record the otherwise indiscernible visual facets of nuclear detonations, especially those phenomena that computers failed to model, and thus which scientists could not anticipate. In addition, as seen in the films of Lookout Mountain, motion pictures were vital because they brought ready-at-hand rhetorics as yet unheard of in computing, including editing, mise-en-scène, and narrative. Consequently, cameras and their operators accompanied scientists and soldiers to every corner of the planet where the new weapons were tested or deployed, and the resulting films were carefully dispersed through the scientific, military, governmental, and sometimes public channels of the nation and the world.

As a film studio created for the purpose of “cold war” in a nuclear age, Lookout Mountain Laboratory was at once a propagandistic agency, a chronicler of institutional evolution, an instructional and training aid, an inter-office communication medium, a scientific and historical witness to the grand experiments of nuclear-weapons related science, and a producer of therapeutic cinema meant to reassure government officials that everything was under control.


Kevin Hamilton (kham@illinois.edu) is an artist and researcher with the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois. Kevin’s research-based artistic work spans the domains of Public Art, New Media, and the Digital Humanities. Recognition for his work has included grants from the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities, presentation at conferences across Europe and North America (ISEA/ DEAF/CAA/NCA/ACM-SIGCHI), publication in edited journals and anthologies (Routledge/CCCS/Palm Press/UCLA), and invited residencies (Banff/USC-IML/Bratislava). 

Ned O’Gorman (nogorman@illinois.edu) is an Associate Professor, Associate Head, and Conrad Humanities Scholar in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He works in several different areas: the history of rhetoric (in practice and in theory), political thought/theory, aesthetics, technology studies, and the digital humanities. He has special interest in the crises and tensions of modernity, or late-modernity, as they were manifested in the Cold War in the United States. He is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy (2012, Michigan State University Press), and the forthcoming (currently titled) The Iconoclastic Shutter: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination (under contract with the University of Chicago Press, expected publication 2014), as well as a number of journal essays on topics related to rhetorical theory, aesthetics, religion, political theory, and political history. 

Trip to Hanoi

By Franny Nudelman Posted July 29, 2013

The Cover of Trip to Hanoi, 1st edition, 1968.

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Before leaving for Hanoi in the spring of 1968, Susan Sontag steeped herself in documentary coverage of the U.S. war in Vietnam, poring over photographs that have long since become iconic. These images of civilians on bicycles and bomb shelters lining the streets of Hanoi helped Sontag to imagine Vietnam from afar. When she arrived in Hanoi, however, she was dismayed to find that the actual North Vietnam was less compelling than the place she had created in her mind. The trip to Hanoi prompted Sontag to think carefully about how we respond to distant suffering, and paved the way for her influential critique of photography.

We tend to regard Sontag’s cultural criticism in isolation without taking into account the activism that frequently informed it. Specifically, Sontag’s ideas about photography developed in tandem with her commitment to the practice of political travel. Sontag believed that direct experience imparted special knowledge. As she told novelist Kenzaburo Oe in 2000, "Something I long ago promised myself was that I would never take positions on what I had not known, seen, with my own eyes." Throughout her life, Sontag traveled to controversial or embattled destinations—including Cuba, Vietnam, China, Bosnia, and Poland.

Sontag traveled to Hanoi to express her opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. Upon return, she wrote Trip to Hanoi, which describes her experience in North Vietnam. There are no photographs in this book, and indeed, the book rejects the kind of knowledge—intense, vicarious, partial—that photographs impart in favor of painstakingly detailed introspection. Far from a conventional travelogue, Sontag’s account of her “trip” reflects the enthusiasm for mind-expansion and consciousness-raising that characterized the counterculture of the late 1960’s. Documenting her reactions to North Vietnam, which are often narrow-minded and condescending, Sontag observes her own imperialist habits of mind, and works to change them.

In On Photography (1977), the pernicious mental habits that Sontag analyzes and eventually casts off in Hanoi resurface as generalized traits of photographic perception. On Photography describes the objectification of foreign cultures as a fundamental feature of photographic vision: shooting and viewing photographs, Americans learn to see the world as theirs for the taking. On Photography’s rapacious tourist, who mistakes gratifying images for reality, appears the alter-ego of the activist—Sontag herself—who travels to the scene of war.

Like Trip to Hanoi, On Photography contains no photographs. This absence is in keeping with the volume’s harsh critique of photography.  Yet it also suggests the degree to which, as Sontag herself admitted at the time, it isn't really a book about photographs at all. It is a book about the relationship between perception and knowledge, or as Sontag put it, between “experience and the capacity to judge this experience.” According to Sontag, when we look at photographs we mistake the intensities of the image for reality and, in doing so, dodge the demands of self-knowledge and social critique. Sontag, by contrast, put photographs to one side in order to travel to Hanoi, and regarded them differently upon return.


Franny Nudelman is an associate professor at Carleton University, where she teaches courses on 19th and 20th century American literature and culture. Her first book, John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War, considers representations of the Civil War dead in song, poetry, and photography. She is currently writing a book about anti-war documentary of the Vietnam era. A longer version of her work on Sontag's experience in Vietnam, and its influence on her writing about photography, is forthcoming in the journal Photography and Culture.

Left Behind

By Thy Phu Posted June 17, 2013

Erasure, 2011. Multi-media installation by Dinh Q. Lê.


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When refugees flee, they carry only what they need. While they may make room for jewelry to barter with and food to keep them going, anything else slows them down. Because sentiment is a luxury, photos are often left behind. Contemporary artist Dinh Q. Lê’s Erasure invites visitors to his exhibition to follow the trail of visual artifacts. The installation features a boat wrecked amid a sea of discarded photos. Visible yet irretrievable, the photos form a broken path that links overseas Vietnamese to scattered families. These are orphan images. 

Although I wasn’t able to visit this installation, which was originally commissioned by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney, Australia, the concept inspired me. I met the artist during a 2012 visit to Ho Chi Minh City, and he told me how he formed the idea in the early days of his return to his homeland, immediately after the normalization of relations between Vietnam and the U.S. in the early 1990s (a period that coincided with the official end of the Cold War). With Đổi mới, the state’s policy of economic renovation, the nation advanced an ambitious program of development. It was in this atmosphere of optimism and change that Lê explored the former capitol, still known to locals by its old name, Saigon.

With sprawling boulevards and majestic trees, Saigon is a city shaped by the French. But look behind the stately colonial buildings and grand promenades and you’ll find it’s also a city of narrow streets and alleys. Hidden not too far from designer stores in tony District 1,where one handbag can cost twice the average monthly salary of a Vietnamese laborer, one such street is famous for junk and antique shops. They are filled with sundry bric-a-brac: lacquer ware, commie kitsch, and photographs. This is where Le found the snaps and studio portraits for his installation.

This is also where I went in search of images to help me understand the history of Vietnamese photography. Having browsed the usual sources, including the national archive, and bumped against large gaps in a pivotal part of this history (1954-1975), I thought the street might offer what the state could not.I knew exactly what I wanted: albums, preferably accompanied by captions and ideally by letters.

The results were disheartening. I found stacks of photos ripped from their albums. Few had any writing or dates. The shopkeepers tell me they do the ripping themselves because “customers don’t want albums; they want pictures.”

I couldn’t help wondering what value photos of anonymous people—someone else’s family and not yours—could have to anyone? (Lê offers one answer: he adopted them in lieu of the ones lost when his own family fled in 1979.) But for my research, the value of the photos lay in the connections between them; torn from the context of their albums, I couldn’t begin to decipher the photos’ meaning. By contrast, what they meant to the shopkeepers was clear: by the piece, the photos were more valuable than collected within albums.

The story ends happily. On my last day in Saigon, I stumbled on a treasure trove. Though the other shopkeepers insisted that no one sold intact albums, I found one special store that did. After I flipped through several, the owner said she had piles more at her house on the outskirts of the city, if I was willing to brave a scooter ride through the snarl of rush-hour traffic. She could read my excitement in my trembling hands. At her house, Mai (not her real name) led me up narrow stairs to her covered rooftop where they were, indeed, piled amid rusted lamp bases, dusty scrapbooks of plump American pinups, and junked math exercises. There were dozens of them, some sticky, a few falling apart, others well preserved.

Many were empty, however. It turns out Mai and her husband also plundered the albums in response to customers’ demands. Anticipating that someone like me would come along, they leave some untouched. But they take most of them apart. Who are their customers? I ask. Researchers, they reply.

Not my kind of researcher, apparently. These others, they tell me, want to look at evolving hairstyles, dress-styles, and body-shapes. They use the photos for histories, expositions, and exhibitions.  Then again, we may not be so unalike. I’m used to looking for archives. Yet these adventures reveal that sometimes researchers produce the archives they look for.

I was later told that Lê paid around $50/kg for the photos he used in his installation. For such bulk orders, Mai and her husband spend long hours ripping and tearing. In a forward-looking Vietnam where locals favor the new over the old, entrepreneurs like Mai make a good living feeding the diaspora’s hunger for the discarded, disassembling and re-assembling the archives it desires.

Distress signals

By Thy Phu Posted June 4, 2013

Figure 1. Protest by Refugees at a Camp in Hong Kong.

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During the late 1970s to 1990s, waves of boat people fled from the aftermath of Cold War proxy conflicts in Southeast Asia. They ended up at camps much like this one in Hong Kong. Makeshift dwellings, the camps resembled prisons, complete with barbed wire and armed guards. As part of the procedure of documentation, refugees were inspected. They were assessed. They were also photographed.

For example, during the so-called Indochinese refugee crisis, the UNHCR snapped ID photos to be included in asylum claims.  Such refugee ID photos typically feature frontal shots of people who are alone or accompanied by family members. They clutch a hand-written sign indicating the date and boat they arrived on as well as the birthdate of the head of the family. The photos capture their destitution and desperation.

There is another familiar context in which the plight of refugees is made recognizable to distant viewers. Think of newspaper stories about this crisis. The photos accompanying these stories likewise portray refugees as passive and abject—reduced to being just human, as Hannah Arendt might say.

Figure 2. UNHCR Refugee ID Photo.

Yet seldom do images consider how refugees actively participate in the photographic encounter. The work of diasporic art photographer Binh Danh envisions this possibility. Traveling decades later to Pulau Bidong, a refugee camp on a Malaysian island where he and his family had once stayed, Binh Danh begins his project by salvaging and photographing the remnants of the camp, including tattered documents that have been long discarded. 

Though ex-refugees have urged Malaysia to build a memorial to the boat people who stayed at the island, instead of developing it for tourism, the site is still neglected. The site is remarkable not for what it shows of the events that unfolded during the time the camp operated, but rather for what it does not show. When ex-refugees make this pilgrimage, they find that what they see before them fails to measure up to the image they carry. Binh Danh’s re-photography project discloses this disconnection.

Figure 3. Remnants of the Pier at Pulau Bidong, from Binh Danh's Pulau Bidong Project. 

Another powerful exception to the visual cliché of refugee victimhood is presented by this photo of distress sounded from behind the bars of the Hong Kong camp. Capturing the assemblage of bodies mobilized to voice poignant dissent, the photo focuses on a rare scene: refugees’ active participation in the photographic encounter. Drawing on the collective gathering of the bare life of bodies as the source of protest, the refugees stage a poignant photographic opportunity. This photo bears witness to collaboration between camera and a self-aware collective.



Figure 1 courtesy of the Paul Tran Collection, Southeast Asian Archive, The University of California at Irvine. Selections from the Pulau Bidong project (Figures 2-3) can also be found at the Southeast Asian Archive at UC Irvine. For more on Binh Danh's work, see binhdanh.com.

Salvage Style

By Thy Phu Posted May 15, 2013

Trophies on Display at the War Museum in Hanoi.

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During my first visit to Hanoi in 2012, I couldn’t help marveling at photography’s ubiquity. While cameras flashed everywhere, nowhere was the practice more obvious than at the War Museum, where I happened upon a group of young communist soldiers, likely born after the war, on an excursion to remember a past that they hadn’t directly experienced. They brought along point-and-shoot cameras, and cajoled bemused fellow tourists to pose with them.  Even I couldn’t resist their delight in self-imaging. We staged these touristic photo opportunities against the somber backdrop of a war we were too young to have fought in, producing images against a vision of the past we did not personally remember. This is a past that seemed to take clear shape only through a careful construction of images.

While I chose not to reproduce the photos of the soldiers photographing themselves, here is an image of the vision against which their memories of the past are measured and taken: a photograph blown up to an exaggerated scale to keep pace with a massive sculpture, built out of salvaged airplane parts that heroically monumentalizes history. This famous photo of a beautiful guerilla soldier salvaging wreckage is no mere illustration of the process of reconstruction. Indeed, this image is integral to this process of reconstruction, and suggests that at this museum, what we see is the effectiveness of salvage photography for remembering—and remaking—history. Against this backdrop, the act of tourist photography is more than trite frivolity. This ritual continues in the tradition of salvage, reconstruction, and reimaging.


Figure 1 courtesy of Michael Tang.

Gulliver among Guerrillas

By Thy Phu Posted May 15, 2013

Figure 1. Nguyen Thi Kim Lai Leads Captured U.S. Serviceman William Robinson to Prison, 1965. Phan Thoan.

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Few images capture the spirit of asymmetric warfare more effectively than this one, which contrasts a hulking American soldier with a scrappy female fighter. Though he leads, there is no doubt about who calls the shots. Hunched over, he is humbled while she is triumphant. The photo also captures more general contrasts for viewers both within Vietnam and abroad. Despite the support of superior resources, technology and weaponry, the US was shaken by unyielding guerrilla resistance, which was aided by little more than repurposed guns and sheer determination. 

Photos like this one reflected yet also created and reinforced this view of asymmetric warfare. They helped the National Liberation Front establish a compelling message to bolster fighters' resolve. Such photos also sparked sympathetic worldwide response.

Figure 2. Vietnam Pictorial. This photo draws parallels between the U.S. and China, the giant that has fallen and the mighty that will fall. 

Several years after reunification in April 30, 1975, the photos were called on to do similar ideological work, this time for the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war. In this collage, the famous photo of contrasts establishes parallels. Although seldom used by the photo-editors of Vietnam Pictorial, the cut-up technique draws comparisons between Chinese opponents, whose sheer numbers and resources were likened to the overwhelming force of their American counterparts whom they’d famously defeated. Emboldened by this earlier victory, the editors at the picture magazine took a few liberties. While the guerilla girl is still petite, in their hands she's grown to reach the humiliated pilot's shoulders.


Ho Chi Minh’s Vision

By Thy Phu Posted May 14, 2013

Figure 1. The Inaugural Issue of Vietnam Pictorial.

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Ho Chi Minh learned two lessons from the French. The first, freedom, is well known. The second, photography, is not. While historians know that he worked as a photo retoucher during his years in Paris, most overlook the importance of photography--an invention often credited to the French--for his vision of national independence. In 1953, Ho Chi Minh authorized the establishment of Vietnam Pictorial. With the assistance of Chinese benefactors, the picture magazine launched in October 1954, shortly after victory at Dien Bien Phu earned the Viet Minh freedom from French colonialism. As a photography magazine, Vietnam Pictorial drew heavily on both international, but especially local, sources for images of the nation. 

Figure 2. Girl with Camera.




1-5. Courtesy of Vietnam Pictorial