An-My Lê, Patient Admission, US Naval Hospital Ship Mercy, Vietnam, 2010. Archival pigment print, 40 × 56 1/2 inches. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York.

A deadly paradox of photography is that the more an image proliferates the weaker its impact becomes, until a terminal point is reached and the image is rendered powerless. Over-saturation leads to desensitization; it’s simple and it’s dangerous. Consider this: how many images of war does it take to nullify our reaction, and by extension distort our sense of the military’s total purpose? The effect streamlines when censors reduce the variety of photographs available to the public. An-My Lê’s photographs get inside this insidious cycle and, by representing the military in a wholly different manner, cause it to collapse.

An-My Lê has a long history with America’s armed forces. Born in Saigon in 1960 ’Lê immigrated to the United States as a political refugee when she was 15 years old, the same year Saigon fell and the Vietnam War ended. When Lê was at Yale in the early ’90s working towards an MFA in photography she returned to Vietnam, keeping her focus on the landscape. In the late ’90s she photographed and participated in Vietnam war reenactments in North Carolina and Virginia. After the turn of the millennium, Lê accompanied Marines to a training ground in the California desert, photographing the scenarios they rehearsed in preparation for deployment. In her most recent body of work—made in 2009 and 2010—Lê traveled aboard hospital ships and aircraft carriers on relief missions, capturing the military in repose.

Unlike the images of war that come through the media, there is nothing garish in Lê’s photographs. Rather, they tend towards ambiguity. They neither celebrate nor condemn war, but depict an atmosphere of quiescence that allows time for reflection and consideration as opposed to mere reaction. In a number of Lê’s photographs, soldiers are simply waiting. “Patient Admission, US Naval Hospital Ship Mercy, Vietnam, 2010” shows an American soldier sitting in a folding metal chair, his perfectly bald head and body language mirroring the Vietnamese Buddhist nun who sits beside him. The Buddhist is in orange robes; the soldier wears blue fatigues. They both look relaxed, eyes calm yet attentive. But in Lê’s photograph they are neither nun nor soldier; they’re simply two people waiting to have their health attended to.

Apart from Lê’s more intimate depictions, her primary subject is the landscape and how gargantuan war machines and soldiers operate within it. A deft use of scale is perhaps her strongest visual tool. The hulking power of an aircraft carrier is dwarfed against the open expanse of the ocean. In reverse proportion “Supply Distribution Convoy, Haiti, 2010” shows a pair of young Haitians in the foreground with an aircraft carrier off in the distance, no bigger than the boys’ legs. In another image, a troop of soldiers are resting on a beach in the shade of towering jungle trees. The juxtapositions don’t reinforce any popular notions of military might; they make the military look vulnerable.

Lê’s concentration on the landscapes of war is not new; in fact it renews a tradition that predates modern warfare, going all the way back to late 19th century. Lê works with a large-format camera of the same variety used by Matthew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan to record the American Civil War. She shares with them a degree of deliberation that is absent from your average photojournalist’s snapping. What distinguishes Lê from her predecessors is the impetus of her practice. Her photographs are consciously created as works of art, as opposed to Brady’s or O’Sullivan’s visual documents, which were later declared art. The difference is not insignificant. Lê answers to no one but herself; she has no editor or censor. As such, she can work with a degree of freedom uncommon amongst photojournalists. No one is pushing her for something sensational and so Lê has the capacity to be subtle and emotionally evocative. Consequentially, her images resonate with a quiet strength and a sense of compassion that rarely, if ever, appears in the media.

The cultural significance of Lê’s work far outstretches its original home in the art world. Her photographs contribute to the way the military is represented and remembered. They offset the deadening proliferation of images that depict only spectacular scenarios, giving our armed forces a more three-dimensional character.


Charles Schultz