1963 | Ca Mau, Vietnam


Historically, the news photography was predominantly the field of Western photographers. In this context, the Gwangju incident which I blogged about earlier was also notable. Magazines like National Geographic and Life, papers like New York Times, other news organizations like BBC sent their reports around the world.  

As such the ever widening war in Vietnam was mostly seen through the eyes of photographers like Robert Capa, Larry Burrows, and Daniel Camus who parachuted into the Indochina (literally in the case of Camus, who was air dropped into the garrison at Dien Bien Phu) even on the ground in Vietnam.

However, for some Vietnamese locals, the war was seen through the lens of guerrilla fighters who doubled as photographers. One such man was Tran Binh Khuol.

Aged 23, he joined the resistance to re-impose the French rule onto Indochina after the end of the Second World War, operating in Bac Lieu province in southern tip of Vietnam. He was arrested and exiled by the French authorities but escaped and returned to work for the propaganda department for the Viet Cong.

In between the French withdrawal and the escalation of the American war, Tran Binh Khuol worked at the press agency for the government (TTXVN, Vietnam News Agency), but soon he would be called again to the frontlines.

In 1963, he took his most memorable photos, that of North Vietnamese soldiers sinking in the mud carrying mortars that weighed up to 75 kilograms to attack a fort in Ca Mau. Ca Mau, though situated on the southern Mekong delta tip of South Vietnam, was a hotbed of Viet Cong activities in those days — and virtually the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply route which ran from North Vietnam through parts of Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam.

His photos showed the stoic facial expressions of the soldiers, especially the wounded ones, who displayed courage and determination akin to the spirit shown at Dien Bien Phu, where equally heavy artillery was hand carried up the bamboo forests, ravines, and rocky climbs to surprise and encircle the French garrison. Some were half-naked, wearing only shorts, and all of them were covered in black mud.

In 2007, Tran Binh Khuol’s photos from Ca Mau campaign were honored with the State Prize, the Vietnamese state’s award for literary and artistic works of merit. Tran Binh Khuol himself however had perished years earlier in the jungles. Having retreated into U Minh forest as the US Army began carpet-bombing the area, he died there in late 1968.

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