Photography and Vietnam: A New Take

Reviewed by Marianne Hirsch

What images come to mind when you recall the war in Vietnam? My inner vision conjures the widely reproduced photograph taken by Nick Ut in 1972 that came to be known as “The Napalm Girl”: a small naked girl, in agony and looking terrified in the center of a wide angle shot of children running away from an enormous black cloud and toward the camera, American GIs behind them. Her silent cry has followed me through many decades, ever since my student days. You might think of Malcolm Browne’s image of the monk who set himself on fire in a 1963 protest against the persecution of Buddhists. Or, possibly, of the 1968 Eddie Adams image taken in Saigon in 1968 of Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan pointing a gun at the head of a suspected Viet Cong officer, about to assassinate him. These powerful black and white images fueled the antiwar movement at the time, helping to convince a global public of the war’s cruelty and injustice. Unbearable to contemplate, and difficult to ignore, they drew a tremendous audience, and remain iconic reminders of the war—images for which, in the terms of Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, “no caption [is] needed.”1 They have both truth value and symbolic power. Barbie Zelizer argues that images of war that become iconic are often “about to die photos”—photos that capture the instant between life and death, and that is true of the three images discussed here.2 It is true even if Kim Phuc narrowly survived the napalm attack, eventually even agreed to meet with the officer who ordered the air strike, and became friends with the photographer who turned her into an icon of the war.


Thy Phu’s Warring Visions: Photography and Vietnam begins precisely with these three images of the war in Vietnam. But, she asks, whose icons are these? From whose perspective were they taken, who circulated them, who remembers the living and dying during this war through their frames? These questions arise, Phu argues, because so much of the war’s visual archive emerged from the work of American journalists and the “visual framework” they shaped, one that overwhelms even Vietnamese photographic practices and Vietnamese memory. An entirely different archive of everyday images also survived from the war on the two Vietnamese sides, however: images of weddings, of smiling children, of domestic rituals and everyday lives lived in the midst of political turmoil, combat, destruction, and flight. Images of courage, resilience, defiance, or of mere survival, they form a counter-archive to the various official archives of this war. These too are war images, and Phu argues that “we need to expand ‘war photography’ beyond the narrow parameters defined by the Western press” (11). We need to consider how, in this war, North and South Vietnam, as well as diasporic Vietnamese communities, “actively enlisted images . . . to legitimiz[e] different claims to the nation” (15), even as pro- and anti-war propaganda in the United States and the West used images in their own competing narratives.


The opening chapters of Warring Visions offer an illuminating discussion and critique of the Western category of war photography and its focus on combat, based in large part on local archival research and oral histories that fill in what was missing from official histories. Phu uses the opportunity Vietnamese archives offer to situate this discussion in a deep history of photography in the region, and to examine, with rare open-mindedness and attention, the socialist ways of seeing that shaped official North Vietnamese visual culture. In the visual record of revolution, subtly examined from both iconographic and historical dimensions by Phu, women came to play a significant role. Phu analyzes some female icons of the revolution:  both through their self-fashioning and through the ways in which different groups mobilized their images in the interest of solidarity, but often in conflicting and counter-productive ways.


Continuing the mission of enlarging the frame of how the war has been imaged, understood and remembered in photographs, the book’s second part turns to South Vietnam. Out of scant material legacies collected throughout the region and in the diaspora, Phu imagines a process for stitching together an archive of South Vietnamese history and photography. The images forming such an archive need to be constructed rather than found, but Phu has by now already established that some of the most powerful images of this war were staged or retouched for greater effect. Phu finds materials in unusual places, for example, in the frequent reenactments of the war, taking place in the United States, and in An-My Lê’s stunning images of such reenactments in Virginia. In performing different sides of the war, white reenactors, as much as Vietnamese refugee participants, engage in more or less successful exercises of empathy and possible reconciliation. As Phu insightfully shows, An-My Lê’s images, as much as the performances themselves, help shape the war’s continuing and conflicting afterlives, and the ambiguities and contestations of memory and loss.


Phu’s consideration of family photographs offer the most powerful counter-narrative to the warring images of combat. Family photos inflect the memories and identities of the Vietnamese diaspora, exhibiting also the complex family relationships that emerged from the encounters of this war. Phu looks closely at both individual images and at albums, unpacking the multi-dimensional stories they can tell despite their conventionality. These narratives are enlarged even further by photo-based artists like Dinh Q. Lê who has developed a moving technique of photo-weaving used with orphan images. Lê’s reparative aesthetic builds on the efforts of the Vietnamese diaspora to collect and archive orphan images, and thereby to supplement and to enlarge official histories. Lê’s acts of weaving and stitching invite a collective form of repair in which photography becomes a platform of community-building in the aftermath of catastrophe.


Similarly weaving and stitching archival fragments together to teach us to see in new ways, Warring Visions also offers similar correctives. It provokes a reevaluation of war photography, of socialist visuality, of memory, loss and diaspora. Reading it has not displaced the lasting power of the image of Kim Phuc from my visual memory, but it has made me think anew about what the stubborn persistence of this image has rendered invisible.



1 Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

2 Barbie Zelizer, About to Die: How News Images Move the Public (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

This review “Photography and Vietnam: A New Take” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 6 Oct. 2021. Web.

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