6 June 2015
The revelation that a photograph from the American/Vietnam War by Doàn Công Tinh, shown at last year’s Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan, has been manipulated at least a couple of times, has caused a lot of comment in the past week.
As ever, it’s useful to step back and look at the context to see the range of issues this revelation exposes. While the initial concern has been about the hot topic of manipulation in photojournalism, this story raises a number of other equally important questions. It’s worth laying them out to try and widen the debate.
The exhibition at Perpignan 2014 was entitled “The Photographers in the North: The Vietnam War,” and featured pictures from Doàn Công Tinh, Chu Chi Thanh, Mai Nam and Hua Kiem. The exhibition’s genesis was detailed in the NYT Lens report on the show:
“The exhibit was the idea of Mr. [Patrick] Chauvel, who traveled to North Vietnam this year along with Jean Francois Leroy, the director of the Visa Pour L’Image photo festival. Mr. Chauvel has also published a book on the North Vietnamese photographers, “Ceux du Nord,” and is making a documentary...
The exhibit and book satisfy Mr. Chauvel’s curiosity about the North Vietnamese photographers who were often nearby - though unseen - during battles he covered.
And it rights a wrong.
‘Usually, history is written by people who won the wars, but it was written by the losers in Vietnam,’ Mr. Chauvel said. ‘This is the first time that the North Vietnamese photographers are writing the story. It’s about time.’”
Only it was not the first time these photographers or images had been seen in the West. Twelve years earlier, in 2002, Doug Niven and Tim Page had produced “Another Vietnam” containing the work of the same North Vietnamese photographers in order to offer a non-American view. The Niven/Page project was a National Geographic book and documentary, and galleries can still be seen online. Despite the similarities, Niven was gracious in his comments about the Perpignan show:
“This looks to be a wholesale extract of five-years' work I did with Tim Page in the form of a National Geographic book called ‘Another Vietnam’ and an accompanying documentary, also by NatGeo, called ‘Vietnam's Unseen War.’ Even the prints as seen here were ones we made for our book and accompanying exhibition.
Regardless, they are wonderful images and it's high time these excellent Vietnamese photographers got the credit they were due. Unfortunately many of them have passed away in the 15 years since our book came out.
Santa Cruz, CA
September 10, 2014”
This raises the important issue of whether the Perpignan show was accurate in claiming originality for the perspective on display, and whether it should have acknowledged the prior work and publications of Niven and Page.
The details of the manipulated image are technically interesting at one level - and can be seen clearly here - and we can speculate about who made the changes. The photographer is unforthcoming in this regard, but Niven is clear neither he nor Page were involved, as he says they didn’t see the waterfall image until the Perpignan show. Equally, there’s no suggestion that anyone associated with Perpignan is responsible. Nonetheless, the disclosure of manipulation is significant, and The New York Times has removed the photograph in question and appended an editors note to the Lens report on the Perpignan show:
“A photograph originally included in this post, showing North Vietnamese soldiers climbing a rope by a waterfall, was actually a composite of two images. After publication, Hany Farid, a professor at Dartmouth who specializes in photo forensics, examined it and determined that the foreground - consisting of rocks and soldiers - has been inserted into another image of a waterfall. In addition, he said a figure was apparently removed from the foreground.
The photograph was part of an exhibit of Vietnamese war images taken by photographers from North Vietnam and featured at last year’s Visa pour l’Image photo festival in Perpignan, France. The image was widely reproduced in coverage of the festival provided to Lens by the curator of the exhibit, Patrick Chauvel.
In an interview, Mr. Chauvel said he was unaware of any problems with the image by photographer Doan Công Tinh. He said that he received the images from the Agence Vietnamienne D’Information (AVI), a governmental agency of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
This kind of composite does not conform to The Times’s journalistic standards, and would not have been published if editors were aware of the manipulation.”
It is interesting to read that note in light of the Lens report's observation on how the North Vietnamese work was well received at Perpignan:
“The North Vietnamese photographers’ images are equal to the great American photos from the war. In Perpignan, seasoned conflict photographers in attendance were in awe of their elderly North Vietnamese colleagues and gave them a long standing ovation during the evening projections.”
This is despite the fact the North Vietnamese photographers were not independent photojournalists, but were clearly, and unsurprisingly, working on their side of the war. If we understand propaganda “to be information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively,” then the North Vietnamese photojournalists so warmly recognised were propagandists - after all, Doàn Công Tinh was a colonel who worked for the People’s Army Daily.
The North Vietnamese photographers are open about their propaganda role. The post that started off this latest manipulation controversy was written by Danish photojournalist Jørn Stjerneklar, after a trip to North Vietnam with Danish journalist Helle Maj to cover “the brave men and women who reported and shot pictures from the North-Vietnamese perspective during the long war against the Americans.” In fact, Helle Maj has written a series of five posts prior to the one that got the photojournalism community’s attention. Based on a series of interviews with the North Vietnamese photographers, these posts discuss how they approached their work. As Maj writes, the North Vietnamese people got a partial view of the war from the photographers' work:
“They got the victories. They witnessed the joy and pride. They saw cooperation between civilians and soldiers. The defeats. Dead North Vietnamese soldiers. People with anxiety painted on their faces. Burnt down villages. Those photos were not published in North Vietnam. ‘We took the pictures. But not many, because we knew they would never be printed. It was about winning the war against United States, so we made most pictures of resolute and happy soldiers. Look, they smile on many of my pictures’, says the former photojournalist Doàn Cong Tinh. It was he who asked the soldiers to smile, he admits only a little later in the interview. The North Vietnamese photo-journalists were very aware that their images could help win the war.”
Mai Nam told Maj:
”We took pictures of reality...We could take all the pictures we wanted during the war...But of course I was not objective. I took the pictures that were best for our struggle against the United States. I photographed to keep the morale of the soldiers high and to get young people to sign up to go to the front. That's why you see so many happy moments from the war."
This mixed self-understanding of reality and objectivity on the one hand, and a particular purpose on the other, is also not uncommon to arguments about contemporary photojournalism.
However, wanting to serve their country’s cause did not mean the North Vietnamese photographers shied away from controversy. Despite the prohibitions on photographing the dead and wounded, even Doàn Cong Tinh defied his superiors and risked court martial by shooting images of casualties. As Maj writes:
“Paradoxically, he was hit by the propaganda machinery as he took a picture later named ‘Comrades in arms of a wounded North Vietnamese soldier who receives help from a buddy. It is his absolute favorite picture from the war - but it was only published 32 years after it was taken, because the communist regime did not want to show pictures of wounded soldiers.”
All this sounds quite familiar to western ears. Given that western militaries have an equal aversion to showing images of casualties, how much of ‘our’ war photojournalism is similarly propaganda? If we think “the North Vietnamese photographers’ images are equal to the great American photos from the war,” what does that say about what we have seen from our side? And what we continue to see of conflict? How many of our contemporary images of war might fit the definition of propaganda as "information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively”?
The North Vietnamese photographers followed closely how their Western counterparts covered the war. According to Hua Kiem, "we subscribed to news pictures from agencies in both France, Japan, China and Russia, so we saw both American photographers' photos and images taken of other colleagues from the West. Their pictures were very beautiful, both technically and the motives as well. We learned a lot from them. But they had better equipment, better working conditions and better quality of films than we had.”
Do they think the photographs changed the course of the war? Doàn Cong Tihn has an interesting thesis about how North Vietnamese and Western photographers did so in tandem. "The [Western] photographers brought the futility of war into the picture. We from the north photographed to mobilize our people. Ultimately our images supplemented each others and led to our victory and an end to the war.”
The original controversy about the manipulation of an historic image show in one of the leading photojournalism festivals has, therefore, sprouted more questions as it has unfolded, including the issues of how we in the West appropriate and re-purpose historic photographs, the importance of originality, acknowledgement and attribution, and, most notably, the relationship between photojournalism and propaganda in times of war. Let's hope these become part of a wider and on-going conversation.