Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War From the Other Side
Edited by Doug Niven. National Geographic Society, 240 pages, $50.00
During the Vietnam War, dozens of photographers working for the North Vietnamese Communist Party fanned out across the country. They took pictures of workers seeking to raise production in state-owned factories, of handsome peasants with guns, of brave fighters in the swamps and of captured U.S. airmen and soldiers. Hired by Hanoi's Vietnam News Agency, equipped with bulky East German cameras and carrying film in their backpacks, the photographers hiked for days down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to get their shots, developing them in the swamps or sending bicycle couriers back north for printing. "I lived and ate with the people. I shared the people's hardships and suffering," recalls Nguyen Dinh Uu, a veteran photographer whose first major assignment was photographing French POWs in 1947.
The uplifting images were published in Communist Party papers at home. But pictures of people on ration lines, destroyed buildings and dead civilians were locked up in Hanoi archives or sent abroad, where some were published in anti-war magazines printed in Europe and North America. Today in Vietnam, the photos are mostly still hidden away, though some can be seen in the Vietnam News Agency's archives.
Now these striking war photos -- and the stories of the people who took them -- are available to a Western audience. In Another Vietnam, edited by Doug Niven and with text by Indochina photographer Tim Page, the reader learns about the travails of the photographers and gets a history of the war as seen from the North Vietnamese side. Through interviews with idealistic old-timers, the book also gives us a glimpse of Vietnam today -- and of how much has changed since the war.
Another Vietnam opens with pictures of Ho Chi Minh taken by his personal photographer, Dinh Danh Dinh (now living out his years in a run-down Hanoi housing project, in a room decorated with photographs). In the early pages there are photos of soldiers in the trenches in of Dien Bien Phu, the key battle that ended in French defeat and withdrawal from North Vietnam. In the end we see the fall of Saigon -- but these are not the pictures so well known to Americans of helicopters taking off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy. Instead we see Viet Minh pushing supply-laden bicycles through the mud, trying to get to Saigon's outskirts. We see dozens of empty shoes abandoned by southerners fleeing the city.
The quality of the photos is superb, despite the fact that they were taken in impossible conditions and that the negatives were poorly stored. When Niven (who earlier put together a photographic collection of Khmer Rouge victims in Cambodia) embarked on this project, he found photographers who had stashed their negatives under sinks or in containers filled with rice kernels to absorb moisture. Film was at a premium in the war days, and Niven met one photographer who shot just one roll during the entire war. (He didn't know when he would be able to get a second roll and was not sure how to load his camera.) Like some of their counterparts in the West, many of the photographers felt that their best work would not be appreciated by their editors, so they held back their favorite shots.
One can find novels that were written in Vietnam -- such as The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh -- describing the horror of going to fight only to return alone because so many comrades were killed in action. But there are few sorrowful pictures in Another Vietnam -- certainly no girls running from napalm. There are the famous pictures of U.S. Navy pilot Robert H. Shumaker being led away by soldiers after his plane was shot down, of Jane Fonda's visit to Hanoi and of U.S. prisoners in the so-called Hanoi Hilton jail. There is a section devoted to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We see a swamp hospital where doctors perform surgery while ankle-deep in mud, slow-motion battle scenes that look like an eerie ballet and soldiers bathed in sunlight as they trudge over the mountains. There are the houses in South Vietnam with tunnels carved through them so that insurgents could pass through villages unseen by the enemy. There are many photos of smiling soldiers posing with their weapons.
In Vietnam today, this idealized iconography of the war is still a rallying point for the aging and increasingly out-of-touch Communist Party. In a country where party membership is down, the war is a symbol of a time of unity and patriotism -- at least for some. The editor of Another Vietnam is frank about which photos were staged, and some of the value of the book is that it provokes interest in the tradition of wartime propaganda. The pictures portray a sanitized version of a war where the line between right and wrong is clearly drawn (some might see similarities in mainstream coverage of latter-day U.S. wars). As Henry Allen writes in his foreword: "Even the combat pictures look optimistic, with soldiers charging and shooting in orgies of courage and self sacrifice. Well, yes, propaganda. But they believed it, the people who made it and the people who saw it. The same way so many Americans believed the pictures they saw in Life magazine."
It's easy to see how these photos may have served to fortify a nation at war during the long, grim years. At that time, the Vietnamese were less cynical than they are now and were perhaps more likely to believe what was in the Communist-run press. Today educated Vietnamese get their news from the BBC Vietnamese language service, CNN and foreign magazines.
This is perhaps the most poignant part of Another Vietnam. It harks back to an era when, for many of these photographers, the revolution was still pure, there was a cause worth fighting for and dying was the patriotic thing to do. Today, of course, the Communist Party in Vietnam has degenerated and censorship and corruption are the norm. Many other comparable countries became "Asian tigers" while Vietnam remained poorer, a nation of rice farmers. Another Vietnam leaves us reflecting on the ways in which Vietnam won the war but lost the peace.