Living through the Vietnam War as a child and immigrating to the United States as a teenager, An-My Lê’s life has been indelibly marked by international conflict. For over two decades, her work as a photographer has engaged the unseen facets within the theater of war. With her large-format camera in tow, she has immersed herself in the Appalachian forest with Vietnam War reenactors, and traveled aboard U.S. aircraft carriers around the globe. Lê identifies as a landscape photographer, a perspective that grounds her subtle, impactful images of American interventionism within a larger history of violence. After her second book, Events Ashore, was published by Aperture in late 2014, Lê met Rail managing director Sara Christoph in her Brooklyn studio to discuss the many incarnations of military force, and the fictions inherent in them all.
Sara Christoph (Rail): The current blockbuster American Sniper, which deals with the same subject matter as your own work, might be a good place for us to begin. The success of these types of movies fascinates me, though it is not surprising, given the way the films tend to mythologize the soldier’s experience in a one-dimensional way. As someone who has spent years carefully parsing the nuances of what it means to live through or participate in a war, what was your reaction to the film?
An-My Lê: You know, I rarely have time to go to the movies, but I did see American Sniper. I also saw Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam. I should have seen it months ago. I think I had P.T.S.D. afterwards. I was very happy to see American Sniper, because I am always fascinated with this subject, but I was disappointed. It was kind of a great story—
Rail: Just the feat of his accomplishments, leaving aside the moral issues.
Lê: Yes, the feat of it. The stress, the focus, the psychology of the mission and how it affected him—all of that really interests me more than anything else. But you’re right, it is very one-dimensional. Some filmmakers, like Kathryn Bigelow and her film Zero Dark Thirty, are interested in portraying something that is three-dimensional. She’s an artist, and hers is a fictional account. And there is something about working within that fiction that allows for a satisfying and challenging description. I don’t think Clint Eastwood did that, even though he can be a great filmmaker. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he got so caught up in wanting to pay tribute to Chris Kyle as a veteran. And of course that is important. It is a responsibility.
Rail: Specifically because of the way Kyle’s story ends, being killed by a fellow vet. There’s an added responsibility to an individual’s legacy.
Lê: The topic of the military raises questions in ways that other topics would not. There are photographers who have dealt with extreme poverty, or who have photographed horrific labor conditions, and they are not held accountable in the same way. They aren’t asked: what do you think of poverty? But the question of the military is so complicated that it riles up people’s opinions. And when your work is about the military, people want to know: are you for or are you against it? Maybe American Sniper was too caught up in having a straightforward message.
Rail: When dealing with such a contentious topic, how do you, in your own work, avoid the polemical? I’m sure people ask you all the time: is this a critique of the military, or are you glorifying their power? In our culture of red states and blue states, you almost always have to fall on one side or the other.
Lê: Absolutely. I think artists deal with something messy, and they keep it messy. Which is frustrating for people, especially when it comes to topics in which everyone has an opinion. I think we do move the conversation forward, but I also like to keep it messy. It is not a math problem. In a way, we should approach these topics in the way one would write an essay. There’s no perfect answer, but at least you throw in some questions and ideas to start the discussion. I feel that is what I try to do.
Rail: When I look at your photographs, they feel very open. I don’t see a polemical stance, or a specific message. Although they depict a very particular outside world in great detail—and often from a great distance—it feels as if the photographs give the viewer a space for contemplation, even introspection. Without any political rhetoric, we can think about our own relationship—complicated or not—to the American military and its presence around the world. So many other depictions of the military don’t allow for this space of ambiguity.
Lê: First and foremost, I’m interested in being there and witnessing something. I use whatever tools I have. Whether it is stepping into a scene and the picture is perfect, or whether it is moving things around and redirecting people—I have no scruples about how I do it. It is about being there and processing it into a picture that makes sense. I want to make a picture that is challenging, layered, evocative, and surprising.
Rail: It’s interesting that you, and many other photographers I’m sure, use the phrase make a picture, instead of the typical phrase, take a picture. To take a picture denotes a quick, snapshot aesthetic, whereas make functions as a nod to the long process, both before and after.
Lê: I do use the phrase “to take a picture,” but I think my work involves labor. It is a certain reworking of what you see and of the facts, in order to create this new fiction. It is certainly a making, a transformation.
Rail: How do you navigate the decision of when to step back and snap the picture, and when to intervene? I’m thinking specifically of your project Small Wars (1999 – 2002), and the many difficulties you faced working deep in the Virginia forest with men reenacting the Vietnam War—people who may or may not have wanted to cooperate with your vision.
Lê: That issue definitely came up when I worked with the reenactors. I would come down for the weekend, and I would try to ingratiate myself with them. And often, I felt they weren’t giving me the focus I needed. I was so frustrated! Around the same time, Jeff Wall came to Bard, where I have been teaching for years. We all went out to dinner, and he asked me what I was working on, so I shared a little of my frustrations. He said: you should pay them! Just hire them! [Laughter.]
I thought a lot about that choice. Ultimately I decided that I really wanted to touch on the specificity of reenactment culture, and so there should be a kind of disjunction between myself and them. They should look a little uncomfortable, they shouldn’t look like flowers in the forest.
People always say that it is so bizarre how these men reenact the Vietnam War, and go to so much trouble to do so! But then, you think about Steven Spielberg or even Kathryn Bigelow, and in a way, their work is a kind of reenactment pushed to the extreme. And no one has any issues with that! Just because it is a movie and there are millions of dollars involved, it is entertainment. And then you look to the military. All the training, practice drills, etc. They use the same language of reenactment. “Today, our scenario is…”
Rail: This leads to your series 29 Palms (2003 – 04), for which you photographed a training facility in the California desert where the Marine Corps sends new recruits before their deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq. That project came about because you applied to be an embedded photographer, and that didn’t work out?
Lê: Yes. The day the war started I was extremely distraught. I thought about all the consequences of war, the young men and women shipping out and the effect it would have on them, their families, and their communities. I was still trying to deal with what happened to me three decades ago in Vietnam. Now a new set of young people were being sent abroad and given a complicated history they are going to have to deal with for the rest of their lives. I tried to make some pictures that day, but I just couldn’t find anything. If I were a different kind of photographer, I would have gone back to the studio and come up with something. But I want to see things for myself; I want to be there. So my first impulse was to become an embed. I got on the waitlist, but most photographers and journalists were already in Kuwait, waiting for the invasion. When I saw photographs of the marines training in the high desert near Joshua Tree National Park, I got impatient. I decided to just go to California.
Rail: I wonder what kind of pictures you would have made had you been embedded? To be entrenched in rapid-action combat seems almost antithetical to your aesthetic.
Lê: I certainly would have made a different kind of picture. I would have tried to use a view camera to describe things. I still think in another life, I would have become a combat photographer.
Rail: Are there specific combat photographers whose work you admire?
Lê: I’m always drawn to Tyler Hicks’s photographs in the NY Times. Going back in history, Larry Burrows, Robert Capa, all those guys were really amazing. I’ve looked at the work of North Vietnamese combat photographers as well. It seemed that they were interested in the landscape much more so than American photographers. I think American photographers became interested in the individual story, especially when the drive was to show what the war was really like, to explain the cost to the American public. The horror of it. The North Vietnamese photographers seemed to include the context, and I’m always more interested in something happening in the landscape. I think it gives perspective.
Rail: This may be an overgeneralization, but it seems that Americans of my generation aren’t so connected to the land in a historical way, certainly not in a way that is intrinsic to our identity. The whole notion of the American Dream is built upon the triumph of the individual over the landscape. The privilege of individualism. Perhaps that is partly why in the American perspective, the landscape becomes a secondary character, specifically when deciding how to tell a story within a single picture.
Lê: Since we are talking about this relationship as a cultural experience, what is your relationship to the landscape?
Rail: Before moving to New York, I lived in California for a while, and so I had the opportunity to drive cross-country. What was so remarkable to me was the transformation of the landscape. Growing up in Virginia by the ocean, I was familiar with flatness. There was no height or depth to the land, just a large, unknowable expanse of water. The American West existed only as an idea.
Lê: And so when you experienced it, how did it make you feel?
Rail: At that moment in my life, it really represented a sense of possibility. Making that journey, not only do you witness drastic shifts in altitude, color, and climate, you see how the landscape so thoroughly influences the way people move through life. It shapes the culture of each place in very distinctive ways.
Lê: For me, the landscape has always been the constant in my work. I work with scale as a way to give context to human endeavors, military endeavors, and the history of power. In the end, Vietnam has endured many battles and gone through so many changes. The Chinese invasion, the Japanese occupation, the colonialism of the French, the Indochina War, the Americans—the constancy was always the landscape. And people change, cultures change over time, but there is something about the land. Even as our world modernizes, there is a certain consistency, a certain authenticity.
Rail: The land as a record.
Lê: Yes, and when I went back to Vietnam for the first time in the 1990s after we normalized relations—you know, it’s funny that I say “we.” After my whole Vietnam (1994 – 98) project, I actually felt much more American. But the colors, the air remains. You reconnect to the land in spite of the changes.
Rail: This thread of the steadfast landscape continues in your recent body of work, Events Ashore (2005 – 14). The project took you around the world by way of numerous U. S. Navy aircraft carriers for a span of nine years. You photographed landings in Thailand, training camps in Ghana, scientific excursions in the Arctic, even relief missions in Haiti. Looking through the book, I couldn’t help but think about the notion of the sublime so adored by the Romantics. Eighteenth-century writers like Edmund Burke were so interested in the sublime as a tension between the land, the ocean, and man. And yet, these same ideas could also be used to describe the U. S. military and its reign abroad: the force that both builds and destroys, the competition between powers, the terrifying beauty and vastness. Do you think about the sublime in making your work?
Lê: I think at sea, it is always about some greater force. The forces of the weather, the sky, the wind, all these uncontrollable things, you really feel the greater force of nature. But at the same time, you are on this massive aircraft carrier that costs about one million dollars a day to run! You really see that tension between the natural world and the force of technology. I think for me, the sublime is always a tension of something that you can’t quite control. It creates these emotions in you that are rare, and that make you aware.
Rail: Some of the pictures in Events Ashore echo the work of landscape painters like Caspar David Friedrich or J.M.W. Turner, painters who were very much concerned with the ideas we’re talking about. In your photographs, there is often a lone figure looking out onto the water, his or her back to us, presumably experiencing some form of contemplation. With everything you witnessed throughout your travels, did you ever have an experience, personally, that you might classify as “sublime?”
Lê: Actually, 29 Palms was the first extended period of time I spent in an unpopulated landscape. That was where I first started to think about this idea of the sublime. You see this extraordinary, open land, and you understand how insignificant we are.
The most powerful experience I had happened during a night exercise in the middle of the desert. It was completely dark, we were at least a two-hour drive from the camp, and then, the whole sky lit up. It was the most extraordinary fireworks I have ever seen—20 minutes of jets dropping bombs, howitzers firing, and tracers in the air. My assistant and I were the only ones outside unprotected, with our cameras! You start to think: do they have the right coordinates? [Laughter.]
You could feel the tremors in your heart. It was a rush of life power, but at the same time, it was devastating. The kind of destruction that this exercise entails, a destruction that is all our own doing. I was really torn between how to feel, and all the while, trying to be calm and think about the pictures!
Rail: In Events Ashore, you also chose to show a counterpoint to this type of exercise in monumental force: you include portraiture. The portraits stand out as moments of a single individual set against, or within, the monumentality of the entire military machine. Is it accurate to say this is a new turn in your work?
Lê: Well, I think my strength is in the use of scale within the landscape. I do think of portraiture as involving scale as well, the individual within a context: within the machinery, within the military, within the culture, within a type. Working on 29 Palms—it is not that I felt the work was especially distant—but I heard so many personal stories. People would often ask me, do you talk to these marines? Of course I talk to them! I was interested in telling their stories, yet I did not want to heroicize them.
I had been taking portraits for a long time, but they were never successful. I look up to August Sander, Diane Arbus, Judith Joy Ross—they are the real portraitists. At one point, I was alone onboard a Coast Guard icebreaker in the Arctic; it was summer and there was practically no ice. After about a week of photographing birds and scientific experiments, I thought, alright, portraits. I was determined to be productive, because of all the effort that it had taken to get there. I even borrowed a crew member’s flash—and some of the portraits actually worked.
To me, the more interesting ones are the pictures of women. I really started to think about what women go through working on those ships, especially on aircraft carriers and submarines—places they weren’t even allowed until fairly recently. How each woman navigates that world in her own way is fascinating to me. Some women found the perfectly fitted shirt that still showed off their curves and their eyebrows were perfectly plucked, while for others, you can see the grease under their fingernails and they are like “one of the guys.” I wanted to understand how they perform their job while still trying to retain their individuality, their femininity. I’m interested in what one can do within a structure that is so rigid.
Rail: The photograph of the female admiral is so memorable.
Lê: That picture gave me a bit of grief. I couldn’t decide between two versions: one in which she is smiling, and one in which she isn’t. At one point, she was the highest operational female admiral in the Navy. How did you read her character?
Rail: I understood her as confident and self-assured in a way that didn’t require overcompensation. Unlike some of the pictures of men, her authority was clear without relying on boisterous gestures or macho body language. The picture felt very genuine to me. Of course, that’s impossible for me to say because I don’t know her.
Lê: Right, but the whole point is that it feels genuine, like there’s something there, something palpable. And what you say is so interesting: is it genuine or not genuine. That idea of fiction and blurring the line between—really, I think it is all fiction. Have you read any of Phil Klay’s stories in Redeployment (2014)?
Rail: No, I haven’t worked up the courage yet.
Lê: It is fiction, but it doesn’t matter. You jump into it, it feels real, and you don’t wonder: what is his responsibility? He has no responsibility. Still, there is something so evocative that comes from his stories. They make you think about real issues, and that is what matters. It is strange that in photography, that flexibility with fiction isn’t as accepted.
Rail: Going all the way back to the Greeks, they had so many stories that dealt with these issues of how to place the warrior clan within civilian society. The plays of Sophocles—Ajax, Philoktetes, even the Women of Trakhis—they all addressed the conflicts inherent in a culture that both relies upon and chastises the members of its military. And yes, of course these stories were fictional—they were performed on a stage—but that did not make them any less important as a way for the culture to understand, or even just talk about, the balance of force in a society.
Of course, photography is inherently different from the written or performed word. At the core of its origin was the idea of the photograph as a physical trace—a characteristic so hailed by one of its originators, Henry Fox Talbot. And so, the medium has always had to answer this plaguing question: Is it true?
Lê: It’s true, photography is a lame duck in a way. But I have deep faith in photography. Of course it is very limiting, but within those limitations a lot can be done. An expressive voice can emerge.
Rail: Thinking about all these complications between the military and photography, what are your thoughts on the future of war photography? We see so much of it, our screens are filled with images of violence from Iraq and Syria, Egypt and the Congo, and yet, the pictures never seem to enter public consciousness the way they once did for the wars of previous generations. I just read a piece by Christopher Anderson in The Photobook Review, himself a Magnum photographer. He begins his review by stating that he really doesn’t want to look at another picture from a war. For such a visual subject, and I’m paraphrasing, so little seems to come from war photography that means much of anything at all. Do you think there will come a point when war photography will become a genre of the past?
Lê: Rather than whether or not there is a future for combat photography, I think one of the big differences now is the role of the civilian—the amateur photographer. Conflicts will always be newsworthy, someone will always need to be there to document. Now the technology is such that anyone can be there and take a quick picture, post it, and send it out to the world. In these pictures you don’t look at the artistry anymore—if there is such a thing—it is just information.
War photographers were always placed on a pedestal. They put their lives at risk. Of course it is still very dangerous, but it also seems that now, there could just as easily be a civilian taking the picture. Maybe it is less a question of whether war photography will continue, and more a question of whether this idea of the heroic, self-sacrificing combat photographer will live on.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.