With Works of Acclaimed Photographers, “Vietnam: The Real War” Depicts Conflict
Vietnam: The Real War: A Photographic History from the Associated Press fills the intimate Steven Kasher Gallery with an overwhelming richness of historical detail and emotion.
The exhibition, which opened on October 24th and runs through November 30th, features over 100 photographs by more than 25 photographers as well as posters, periodicals, and other documents. The show is mounted in conjunction with the release of the book, Vietnam: The Real War. The Steven Kasher Gallery is located at 521 W. 23rd Street and is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission is free.
Upon entering the gallery, you are confronted by two horrifying images. To the right of the door, on a small white wall, hangs a photo of a distraught father holding the body of his child as South Vietnamese Rangers look down from their armored vehicle. The naked child lies limp across his father’s outstretched arms. The father’s eyes meet one soldier’s downcast gaze as a field, trees, and a house lie hazy in the distance. The child was killed as government forces pursued guerrillas into a village near the Cambodian border on March 19th, 1964; the image is from Horst Faas’s portfolio that received the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for photography.
Directly in front of the door, a large photo by Henri Huet shows the Life Magazine photographer Larry Burrows struggling through elephant grass and the rotor wash of an American evacuation helicopter as he helps carry a wounded soldier on a stretcher from the jungle to the chopper in Mimot, Cambodia on May 4th, 1970. In the midst of war, Burrows becomes indistinguishable from the surrounding soldiers, save for the camera hanging around his neck. Burrows died on February 10, 1971 along with Henri Huet and two other photojournalists when their helicopter was shot down over Laos. By displaying their photos, this exhibition honors those photographers who endangered themselves and lost their lives documenting the Vietnam War.
The exhibition is organized chronologically, with the photos arranged in six chapters, each of which begins with a copy of a historically relevant document. Descriptions and historical details accompany each photo in the exhibition. Chapter 1, titled “United States into the Breaches,” covers 1954-1964 and showcases a private memo, dated September 15th 1964, from Saigon correspondent Malcolm Browne to foreign editor Ben Basset. The document likens the faltering efforts of U.S. diplomats to “so many babies let loose in a tiger’s cage,” and concludes that “America in general is incapable of handling the situation in Vietnam.”
Chapter one includes Malcolm Browne’s famous photograph of the burning monk along with, for the first time, the before and after images of this event in a series of eight photos that are paired in twos, vertically descending the wall. The photograph aroused worldwide outrage and hastened the end of the Diem government. With the photo on his Oval Office desk, President Kennedy remarked to his ambassador, “We’re going to have to do something about that regime.” The exhibition also includes Nick Ut’s well-known picture of a nine-year-old girl running from a napalm attack and Eddie Adams’s photo depicting the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner.
In contrast to the many fiery images on display, several photos depict bodies of water. One photograph taken by Henri Huet shows U.S. paratroopers holding their automatic weapons above water as they cross a river in the rain to look for Viet Cong on September 25th, 1965. The men look small, standing far out in the distance and wading in water up to their shoulders. One soldier stands in the forefront of the photo with his back turned away from the camera and looks out at the single row of men. The paratroopers had been searching the area for 12 days with no success.
In another photo, dated 1965, by Huynh Thanh My, a woman bound with rope kneels in a body of water as a man, standing behind her, grabs her hair while he clutches an embankment to steady himself and looks at the back of her head. You can see the current. The soldier is interrogating the woman in order to procure information about local guerrilla forces in the Mekong Delta. The contrast between fire and water that emerges through the photos captures the extremes of war. As you leave the exhibit, you’re struck by the feeling that something inside you has changed.