The Big Picture: Vietnam

The Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog is one I keep an eye on. Last week, to recognize the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam War, they put up a gallery that’s well worth a look.

Vietnam has a special significance in war photography, not simply because of it’s status as a Baby Boom touchstone, but because it marked a shift in how photographers covered war, the reverberations of which are still being felt today.

The photography of WWII was primarily cheerleading an Allied victory in what might be called “the last good war.” In Korea, riding the wave of righteousness that followed, and of anti-Communist sentiment, photographers were happy to show that war is hell, without questioning its necessity, our moral authority to conduct it, or the actions of our own troops. David Douglas Duncan, who took pains to show American soldiers in a positive light, is the avatar of Korean War photography.

All that changed in Vietnam. Growing anti-war sentiment was reflected in, and amplified by, anti-war photography. In part, this may be the influence of photographers from non-combatant nations; it can’t be a coincidence that two of the leading anti-war photographers of the Vietnam era, Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, were British. And for the first time, war photography ceased to be the preserve of travelling correspondents from Western countries. Vietnamese photographers made a significant contribution.

This gallery is missing most of the usual suspects: we get nothing from McCullin, Philip Jones Griffiths, or the brilliant Larry Burrows. There are a lot of uncredited AP photos and DoD photos. But it also highlights the significant work of two Vietnamese photographers, Nick Ut and Henri Huet.

Henri Huet, the son of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, is little remembered these days, probably because his career ended in the same helicopter crash that killed Larry Burrows. But his photography stands out in this gallery—and these photos are not even his best-known work (although one appeared as a Tim O’Brien cover).

And Nick Ut, of course, is known for his Pulitzer-winning photo of “napalm girl” Kim Phuc, but this gallery gives us just enough to show that he was no one-trick pony.

Check out the gallery.

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