I was in California for a week and a half last month. It wasn’t vacation but I did make it to the Hoover Institution to see a small exhibition of photographs of the Vietnam War that were shot for and published by the Overseas Weekly.
It’s an interesting show. Vietnam is kind of seared into photography’s memory as a war which defined what photojournalism is supposed to be. Up-close action. Iconic images. I’ve seen way too many lists of “most-iconic” photos that end up being mostly photos of the 1960 and 70s—at least half of them of the war or related events overseas.
The photos at the Hoover are kind of the complete opposite in that they show a more personal side of the soldiers and capture a lot of the downtime of the war effort. So we see how the soldiers spent their spare time and interacted with the Vietnamese locals. Plus we’ve got interviews with the troops asking them what they think about the war, how race relations are in the military are, and other man-on-street type of questions.
The show also includes bios and information about the photographers and publishers of the Overseas Weekly. The Weekly is notable for being published by women and also featuring a number of women correspondents. It’s kind of fascinating to read about their approach to covering the war and I’m impressed at how the show avoids making a big deal about this.
It kind of amazes me that these photos and publications were so controversial at the time. To my eyes they’re the kind of thing that the military would want to be circulated. They show soldiers helping children and families. For a time when many in the anti-war public made the mistake of demonizing the soldiers for not avoiding the draft it seems like anything that humanized them could’ve helped prevent some of the backlash.
In many ways the photos felt so much like propaganda for making the soldiers and mission sympathetic that I couldn’t help but find myself be skeptical of the entire thing. For all the Army’s skepticism of Overseas Weekly it’s clearly intended to be for the troops—both news and comfort food. It’s an inside job which avoids anything that would seriously damage the war effort.
I very much appreciate the additional nuance of seeing who the soldiers are and being reminded that being anti-war is as profound a statement of support for the troops as anything.* But yes when one of the chief atrocities of the Vietnam War is also marked by the photographer admitting that he destroyed any negatives which explicitly implicated US troops I can’t look at any Vietnam War photographs without asking myself what’s not shown.
*Yes I know I’ve previously mentioned that valuing US lives over civilians is how we end up with endless drone warfare.
To the Hoover’s credit, many contact sheets are present and their actual archives only show the contact sheets online. So if I were so interested I could look through everything and see what didn’t make it into the show. Though this still wouldn’t show what never made it onto the contact sheets or what the photographers weren’t allowed to access and yeah, I know more than to just accept these at face value.
The prints on display are all modern—often on metal—and many appear to be be enlarged scans of the contact sheets based on how frequently the wax pencil markings appear on the image. This suggests that negatives may now longer exists of many of the images. It also treats the images as being about the image itself rather than any artistic statement.
Images on metal don’t feel like prints in a museum but instead like signage. It’s weird. They look fine, I just react to them differently even with the wall texts.