The Vietnam War in Images – Sophie
1. Choose two photographs from the 10 above that feature in the documentary.
Consider the strengths and weaknesses of war photography as an historical
source using evidence from the photographs you have chosen.
My Lai Massacre 1969
Strengths: It is a very powerful photograph. It shows the Americans'
brutality through the people's expression. It also marks the fact that war
had reached a stage where massive murder was allowed any time, at any place,
to anybody. Also, as it is a photograph, it doesn't only affect people's
mind but people's feelings as well, which is much more powerful as an impact
as it cannot be “rationalised”.
Weaknesses: Americans are not shown, therefore it can argued that the scene
was set up only to shock the (USA) population. A photograph doesn't give
global information about events, it only shows a captured moment. For
instance, here there is no proof that the Vietnamese people on the picture
where killed, based only on this photograph; it can be argued that they were
only hiding (which would support the commanding officer's report which
claimed that civilians were killed by accident).
Fall of Saigon 1975
Strengths: Also very powerful and very well centred. The photograph includes
many elements which makes it more neutral towards any American or Vietnamese
point of view. It clearly shows desperation. People's desperation, general
desperate atmosphere (through the desperate situation of a paradox: the
helicopter's size/the number of people wanting to get in it). It can also be
used to support the idea that Americans were quite egoistic in the end, as
they wouldn't provide any help to their 'allies' even in emergency
situations. But still a photograph is always neutral; as it can only capture
a moment and not count a whole course of events therefore it is open to
various interpretations according to who is holding it. Although it can be
called a historical archive, a photograph is still a piece of art (therefore
open to interpretation).
Weaknesses: Once again, photographs are to show emotions rather than full
explanation of the situation. Also because of the distance, one cannot be
certain that the helicopter is in fact American. Neither can we be sure that
the photograph is not fake, made on propaganda purposes. The Viet Congs'
presence is lacking and we do not have any clear idea of who are the people
waiting for the helicopter nor do we know their destination. It consequently
leaves us to hypothesis therefore personal interpretation.
2. ‘The Vietnam War is called the first televised war, but it is the
photographs we remember’. How far do you agree with the assertion that still
images are more powerful than moving film?
Television played an enormous role during the Vietnam War as it is one of
the firsts which could followed almost day-to-day by the viewers. It
consequently had an impact on people's mind, much greater than when news
were reported on the newspapers. Watching scenes with sound not inspired by
reality but actually real was revolutionary on the population's opinion. For
instance, in 1968, the execution of a suspect Viet Cong was projected to the
whole United States of America, which eventually stayed astounded to the
television set. The impact on the human being is such that he actually gets
merged for a few second into the video and lives the moment as the
protagonist. With sound and image, it is indeed much easier to make things
look all of a sudden quite realistic and break the distance with the viewer.
Emotions arise and become uncontrollable. (This is for me the most
prodigious example of manipulation, and it is not without reason that
television is used for political and commercial purposes).
However, despite the important role of television, I personally agree with
the idea that still images are indeed much more powerful. In my opinion, it
doesn't really concern the fact that it is way easier to watch again and
again a photograph, whereas it is not the case with a video (which today is
completely irrelevant anyway). I think that, concerning videos, as short as
these can be, they always have a sense of chronological course (of action),
with a 'beginning' and an 'end'. We are therefore conscious that it stops at
a precise time and in cases such as the Vietnam War for example, the
suffering has an ending (through the ending of the video). As easily we get
merged into one (virtual) reality for a few seconds, as easily we are thrown
out of it and back into our own reality which is far away from what we just
saw. The number of informations our brain receives during the video makes it
impossible for us to record everything and in the end, we only stay with a
blurred view of what happened. With photographs, in contrast, as long as
someone will watch it and discover every detail in it, it will never have no
'beginning' nor any 'ending'. It marks a precise moment of emotion to which
the viewer is confronted which doesn't change. If the person fixes it, his
brain will have the time to explore the details of the image, therefore get
a fixed idea of what happened. Videos make us merge into another reality.
Photos make us merge into reality. In videos, we hear all sorts of noise, we
sometimes see people, we see movement, there is an atmosphere which is
already installed, and despite our emotions, once it is over and we are back
into our reality we just think “Thanks God I'm not out there”. In
photographs, as movement, sound and therefore atmosphere are lacking, we
automatically use our imagination in order to build one. We therefore create
a reality, which is inspired from ours, through the whole number of emotions
kept fixed to a single image. But as a still image is not another reality by
itself, it makes our imagination grow without limits in order to build one
and our emotions emphasize this phenomena. It is like painting. Tragedy is
much more 'emphasizeable' as our emotions don't let us keep contact with
reality but make our imagination work. As the image is silent for instance,
when seeing a photograph such as Nick Ut's photo the Napalm girl, our mind
makes us hear this horrible shouting of the children crying. This is the
power of silence in a picture. As a photo has no 'beginning' and no 'end',
the suffering (in the case of the Vietnam war for example) looks as if
always here, whenever someone turns to look at the photo, it will still be
there. It has a sense of eternity. And we have the time, while fixing it, to
imagine this beginning, this atmosphere and this end.