Monday, April 30, 2018

Ken Burns' The Vietnam War (War is Hell, part 1)

You probably know that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick created a 10-part documentary series on the Vietnam War that aired on PBS last September and October. I don't think I got around to watching it until November.

I found it very moving and interesting, and it's a big part of the impetus behind this "War is Hell" week. There was a lot of information there, but what shook me most profoundly was a brief moment in the introduction to the first episode, when the cameras start rolling back.

I suppose it was a good reminder just how many of those famous photos that everyone recognizes are from the Vietnam War era. I hadn't even known that so many of those moments were not just photographed, but filmed.

I took a photography seminar once. We spent a lot of time on settings, but then the instructor pointed out that most of your best shots will happen with the automatic settings because the moment just happens and you have to capture it without thinking. Yes, you can think ahead about what might happen and what might help you get a better shot of that, but there's a certain amount of chance, and you put those odds in your favor by always being ready to shoot.

That would have been true for the photo and film crews there.

One of the most disturbing shots for me was always Saigon Execution, taken by Eddie Adams. He wasn't sure what he had, but it ended up being a symbol of the ugliness of the war. To the people at home who saw it, it looked like a cold-blooded murder by one of our allies.

That is not how Adams saw it, and he always regretted the damage he did to the reputation of the shooter, Nguyen Ngoc Loan. By all accounts, the man shot - Nguyen Van Lem - had murdered many as well. The paper was careful to publish it with a picture of a child slain by the Viet Cong, but that image has not endured the same way.

I don't remember exactly when I first saw it, but I definitely didn't know anything about the context. I only saw the wince, which I interpreted as fear before the shot, not the pain after the fatal shot. I do remember wondering how you could take a picture of something horrible, instead of trying to stop it.

Given time and some seminars, I know that you shoot instinctively, not always knowing. I know that this is necessary, especially with journalistic photography. There are things that cannot be stopped but need to be documented. I know that sometimes you take the picture and help.

Nick Ut filmed the burned and terrified children running toward him, but he also took  Kim Phuc to the hospital. Though they thought her burns were severe enough that she could not survive, he visited her every week until he was evacuated. The last I knew, they still talk on the phone once a week.

That run was also filmed, and that was one of the images shown in reverse.

It plays terrible emotional trick. Here are these images that horrified you, and look, they are being rewound. The children are running backward to before the napalm hit. The crumpled body springs back up and the bullet returns to the gun so that Nguyen has not yet shot Nguyen. Protesters are not beaten, missiles do not fall. There was not footage of it, but I can imagine no one dying at Kent State.

Being given that glimpse of it doesn't make it real. You can't undo what has been done.

You can try and heal it, and hope to learn from it, but it can't be undone.

That is an excellent reason to think carefully before releasing Hell on earth.

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