The task of the photographer in examining the effects of war has become increasingly problematic. At a time when cell phones, video, and social media dominate the coverage of events, the heroic model of the photojournalist braving the front lines has lost its relevance and forced artists and documentarians to look for alternative approaches to scrutinize conflict. For photographers, this often involves exploring events peripheral to war, or in its aftermath. Ironically, this solution has a precedent in photography’s past. Nineteenth-century photographers like Roger Fenton and Timothy O’Sullivan, for example, were forced by the camera’s technological limitations to photograph war at a remove or in its wake. Drawing inspiration from this rich tradition of 19th-century war photography, An-My Lê’s Events Ashore eschews the violent drama of war and looks at the complicated and pervasive influence of the U.S. military around the world. Whether poised on the deck of a military battleship or alongside troops in the field, Lê uses her large-format camera to observe the transformative global presence of the military.
Events Ashore began almost 10 years ago, when Lê was invited to photograph naval ships preparing for departure to Iraq. Travelling around the world, from Panama to Iraq to Antarctica, Lê accompanied various non-combat, humanitarian, and scientific missions. Lê is not a photojournalist in any traditional sense, and, operating far from the front lines, she is most interested in the less visible work of the military. Set against a shifting global background, Lê offers an intimate look at the lives of the people who make the military work. From training local military in basic combat and practicing drills on a beach to piloting a submarine through the Arctic Circle and delivering aid, young cadets and officers are depicted doing often mundane but important tasks. There are several individual portraits, but for the most part Lê’s camera is positioned at a remove, which allows her to place the individuals and military equipment within a larger landscape. As Lê herself states, her work addresses “the vast geopolitical forces and conflicts that shape these landscapes.” Rather than presenting an overtly politicized view, Lê treats her subjects with a sensitivity and even-handedness that complicates past assessments. Exploiting the illusion of photographic objectivity, she forces the viewer to reflect on the complicated role the U.S. military plays around the world.
At the heart of the work is Lê’s own ambivalent and conflicted relationship with the U.S. military. As a young girl, Lê was one of many Vietnamese transported to the United States in the wake of the Vietnam War, and she grew up seeing the U.S. military as both aggressors and saviors. This tension is explored at length in Lê’s two earliest bodies of work: Viêt Nam (1994 – 98), which looked at the contemporary landscape of Vietnam, and Small Wars (1999 – 2002), which documented Vietnam War reenactments in the United States, with Lê often participating and playing the role of a Vietnamese soldier. Lê works with a large-format 5 by 7 view camera, which allows for highly descriptive and detailed images that resemble the slightly panoramic 35mm format more than most large-format cameras. Best known for her black-and-white work, she began shooting color with Events Ashore. Her deep-focus images are sharp throughout, rendering their entire scenes in crisp detail that invites close scrutiny.
The book is organized into several numbered chapters, and begins with a short sequence of five landscapes from various regions of the globe—Panama, California, the Bering Sea, Antarctica, and Australia. Unlike most of the images in the book, these photographs’ expansive landscapes are devoid of people. Read in relation to the images that follow, these appear as empty stages awaiting the drama to come. In the subsequent four chapters, the images are grouped roughly thematically, moving between the sea, the land, and the coast. At the end of the book is a text by Geoff Dyer, who selected a number of the images and wrote a series of short, digressive, and humorous pieces on the photographs. Dyer’s writing provides levity, as well as poignant insight into the work. The book is generously portioned at 10.5 by 13 inches, and the photographic reproductions stunningly capture the rich tonalities of Lê’s large-format images.
Already honored with numerous prizes, including a coveted MacArthur Fellowship, Lê is a formidable artist, and it is hard to find fault with this Herculean project. While some might quibble with Lê’s apparent neutrality when dealing with such a contentious subject, it is her very distance that allows us to see and read the work more clearly. In Events Ashore, Lê honors and updates the esteemed canon of 19th-century war photographers, offering a vital and complex document of the United States’s military presence around the globe.
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer.