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Through a Lens, Darkly

A bitter conflict is seen anew in rare images captured by North Vietnamese photographers.

April 24, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In "Dispatches," his nightmarish memoir of covering the Indochina War, journalist Michael Herr describes Vietnam as "a dark room full of deadly objects." Now, nearly 27 years after the war's frantic finish, another door to that room has swung ajar, revealing not just a hidden chamber but an entirely new wing, lined from top to bottom with images that are alternately beautiful and brutal, revealing and beguiling:

A pair of Viet Cong guerrillas laying mines in the Mekong Delta, their chiseled faces taut with resolve. A forlorn villager helplessly cradling a 15-year-old girl's lifeless body. Communist troops outflanking a desperate squad of South Vietnamese soldiers, probably recorded in the last few seconds before they died. A young woman rationing fish sauce to a crowd of North Vietnamese peasants, in a scene full of quiet luminance as an old Dutch Master painting.

Taken from the new book "Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War From the Other Side" (National Geographic, $50), these striking images view the 30-year conflict from the looking-glass perspective of America's erstwhile enemies, the North Vietnamese. Co-edited by American photographer Doug Niven, "Another Vietnam" contains many pictures that have seldom been glimpsed by Western eyes.

Though a few ran in Hanoi newspapers and journals during the war, many others never were printed, either because they were deemed technically unexceptional or they didn't fit the Communist government's propaganda line. The book, Niven says, seeks to resurrect not only a cache of historic images but the names of the largely anonymous photographers who made them, names like Vo Anh Khanh, Mai Loc and Nguyen Dinh Uu.

"One thing I noticed is, after all these movies and all the books we've read, and all the Time-Life collections of pictures from the war, I still didn't have a picture of what the enemy looked like. It was this faceless enemy living in the jungle and it was very abstract," says Niven, 39, speaking by phone from his Santa Cruz home. "The wonderful discovery I made was that it wasn't just people wearing black pajamas."

With the book's publication in February, a war that seemed to have bequeathed its cultural legacy to posterity decades ago has popped open like "an enormous Pandora's box," writes Niven's collaborator, Tim Page, a legendary British-born Vietnam combat photographer. Niven believes the newly rediscovered photos add a crucial dimension to a war that was exhaustively covered by Western media at the time and has since been replayed through pop culture--but almost always from an American point of view. "The Vietnamese government is still struggling to arrive at an 'official' version of the war," Niven says. "Maybe we in America are struggling with the same issue."

By chance, another exhibition of Vietnam War imagery is on view through June 30 at the Perfect Exposure Gallery in Koreatown. "Nick Ut: From Hell to Hollywood" examines two sides of the work of veteran Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut, who was born in what was then South Vietnam but has lived in Los Angeles since 1977. Splitting its focus between the Indochina War and Ut's frequently humorous candids of Tinseltown celebrities like Sly Stallone, O.J. Simpson and Robert Downey Jr., "From Hell to Hollywood" juxtaposes third-world agony with first-world absurdism.

Included is a haunting series of photos Ut took on the afternoon of June 8, 1972, in Trang Bang village, 30 miles northwest of Saigon. Ut witnessed the accidental napalm bombing of Trang Bang by South Vietnamese pilots and the subsequent flight of refugees from the fiery destruction. The central figure in his most famous image, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is of a 9-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, screaming in pain as she runs naked down a country road.

By many accounts, Ut helped saved Kim Phuc's life by driving her to a doctor for help. The two subsequently became close friends, touring the world together to talk about the photo and the events that produced it. She calls me 'Uncle Nick,'" says Ut, 51, a friendly, unassuming man who still carries around shrapnel fragments in his left leg. "Sometimes I look at her picture, I cry by myself." Despite the trauma of those years, Ut says, he'd like to cover the current war in Afghanistan. "But it's too cold for me. Plus today the pictures are like propaganda. I don't think you see any more pictures like the Vietnam War."

For many who experienced it directly, the Vietnam War is like a delayed-fuse bomb that detonates long after its initial hit, exploding across space and time. And to the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese immigrants living in Southern California, the war is no artistic abstraction. For them, every image of the conflict is politically loaded, a painful reminder of friends and family lost, homes destroyed, lives torn apart.

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