Photographs Of The War In Our Mind

The war is not present. Not directly at least. The photographs are of people existing in stages of life that are in personal relations to war. While classic war photography enters and shapes our collective consciousness of the event by delivering immediate emotional impacts, An-My Lê’s Small Wars presents a slower, contemplative way of seeing. 

In Lê’s Small Wars, we don’t see combat. We see war being psychologically remembered, processed, relived, and rehearsed. We don’t look at war itself. We examine our own thinking of it. 

Spanning over a decade, the photobook binds together An-My Lê’s three series: Viêt Nam, Small Wars, and 29 Palms. In Viêt Nam, Lê returned to her birth country, capturing its revival after the war. With Small Wars, Lê journeyed with American reenactors of the Vietnam War. The most current of all, 29 Palms was documentation of US military exercises for upcoming maneuvers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Leafing through the books, one finds themselves in three different worlds, aesthetically and psychologically, albeit complementing one another under the same theme. There is also a sameness: the camera of choice, black-and-white film, the large format. Framings differ, so do presentations of landscapes. The change probably reflects the photographer’s evolution of perspectives on the subject of war. 

The photographs of Vietnam are eerie and soft. They lead us on a journey across a post-war Vietnam with seemingly no geographical nor thematic order.

In a portrait, a girl wears a beaded necklace as a badge of hope and innocence. Her head is covered by an oversized, old pith helmet – a remnant of the war that she carries as part of her current life.

In a landscape picture, civilians casually swamp a clearing, all looking up to the kites that dart in blurs across the sky. The darting and diving kites call to mind bombing airplanes that once shattered the same sky.

In some other still life shots, we find ourselves staring at photographs of a lush forest or a desk and a chair in an empty nondescript room.

The framings are usually not clean. Nor sentimental and calculated. There is sensitivity to composition. But nothing is formalist. 

There is softness and fluidness in the way Le deals with motion and lighting. In the way that photographs cut instants out of the world, she does not hurry in grasping the moment. It’s not what she is after. Her timing does not try to be the kind Henri-Cartier Besson pursued. It does not carry within itself the immediacy, the cheeky opportunism, but rather, is the result of a long, careful, unassuming gaze. With the lighting, the eye’s attention is spread, in most cases, evenly across an image. Nothing is given more importance than others. Our eyes wander the photograph, from one detail to another. Our interpretation takes time to happen. We enter the photographic world, slowly process it, slowly detect what it evokes in ourselves. 

This echoes the journey Le had when she returned to Vietnam in search of a specific answer to her past. The real that her eye/ camera saw did not match what her mind had.  In the end, Le resorted to “photographs that use the real to ground the imaginary”. The real she came to see was not the intended destination, but its reconciliation with her memories. The reconciliation did not happen in the immediate act of seeing. It happened in the mind after.

Viêt Nam is the most intimate series in the volume. It was the photographer’s personal quest to examine her relationship with a country that used to be home but was no longer. War was not the subject. War was a catalyst. Her journey to post-war Vietnam was, in essence, one to make sense of her own baggage, to make peace with what had happened and what had remained in her mind. 

In Small Wars and 27 Palms, war grows into a dominant theme. The photographer’s mind’s eyes turn from the inward into others, from autobiographical to commentary. The juxtaposition is fascinating. Viêt Nam looks in the eyes of the ordinary Vietnamese people, whom War had happened to and was pulling away from. In the latter series, we see the American people acting to bring themselves closer to War (to make War happen to them). In Small Wars, we see non-military Americans restaged the Vietnam War in Virginia’s landscapes, bringing themselves closer to a war in the past. In 27 Palms, American marines rehearsed on American desserts, readying themselves to get closer to a future war they chose to enter. 

But again, all of these are not War. They are its simulations. “The concept of simulations that are once removed but allow one to see and understand the real thing with clarity and perhaps more objectivity”. Distance seems a key thing, conceptually and psychologically.

The artist keeps the distance. We occasionally see a portrait. But none is a close-up that appears an intrusion of space, a kind of proximity that crosses borders between strangers. The artist doesn’t claim to be in the position of knowledge or understanding. She does not seek to shock, enrage, make statements, rouse sadness, indignance, or pity. Her position is personal but unimposing, sensitive but unsentimental, unassuming and unintrusive. 

This goes hand in hand with Le’s choice of large format and black-and-white film. In her words, “in an image from 5-by-7 negatives or larger, one can sense the volumes of air moving between things and inside spaces”. This distance, this air, this depth creates a naturalism that takes the viewer in with ease, stirs her in quiet, and wraps the imageries in a contemplative mood. “The world as seen in black and white also feels one step removed from its reality, so it seems fitting as a way to conjure up a memory or to blur fact and fiction.“

One thing rises and strikes strongly in Le’s book. With each series created independently of each other, seamed together with one theme, chronologically arranged though not strictly so, one catches the sense of evolution in not just the way Le deals with the subject of War, but also in her presentation of the relation between humans and landscape. From one series to the next, landscapes were not exhibited as props for the human narratives but increasingly as a subject by their own rights. 

In Viêt Nam, nature carpeted the living. Trees moved, leaves blurred, the grass swayed. Nature, side by side with humans, tried to return to life. In Small Wars, lush forests envelop humans. Nature looms wild. Le recalled, “Working with the Vietnam War reenactors I became fascinated by the significance of the landscape in terms of its strategic meaning. Every hilltop, bend in the road, group of trees and open field became a possibility for an ambush, an escape route, a landing zone, or a campsite.” Nature becomes either an accomplice or an enemy. Finally, in 27 Napalms, stillness reigns. Human actions get dropped in the middle of a vastness of nature. We stand from afar looking at tanks crossing a desert. The tanks, as our minds interpret, are sinister weapons of death, yet take just a small portion of the whole picture. The large clouds hovering above and the expanse of the desert are what trap our eyes the most. 

As the mind is led to absorb the enormity of nature, it grows to regard the human acts of war senseless. In the larger scheme of things, years or decades later, the mountains will stand there, serene and imposing, the desert will lie there, still and steaming, and large white clouds will keep strolling past the skies. But we, humans, and our wars will be gone. Nature, as ancient organisms who have witnessed our rises and falls, our wars and revolutions, our destructions and renaissances, will remain anchored to existence more firmly than we can ever hope to be. 

Small Wars is a special book, one that makes a virtue of simplicity. Style gives the first priority to content. It is markedly humble. This has become rare in our age when excessiveness and self-indulgence saturate photographs, in a trend that Susan Sontag named “aesthetic consumerism”. With Small Wars, the longer I let it simmer in the back of my head, the more I find its quiet, contemplative quality ripple into currents of my perceptions and consciousness. 

Albeit categorized as a photo-journalistic book, Small Wars does not merely document. The photos are not time capsules of what happened. They feel more evidence of the thoughts. Le didn’t make photographs as a way to place a mirror to reflect reality. She placed the photographed reality as a mirror to reflect the mind of her own, and ourselves. 

An-My Lê is an artist whose photographs of landscapes transformed by war or other forms of military activity blur the boundaries between fact and fiction and are rich with layers of meaning. A refugee from Vietnam and resident of the United States since 1975, much of Le’s work is inspired by her own experience of war and dislocation. Since 1998, she has been affiliated with Bard College, where she is currently a professor in the Department of Photography. Her work has been exhibited at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.