1970 | Ca Mau, Vietnam

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As I noted before – the war in Vietnam was mostly remembered through the work of Western photographers like Robert Capa and Larry Burrows. However, in North Vietnam, the war was witnessed through the lens of guerrilla fighters who doubled as photographers.

Last time, I wrote about Tran Binh Khuol. Like him, Vo An Khanh was born in Bac Lieu province in southwestern Vietnam. After arrest of his brothers for Communism, Vo left his farming and fishing background for city life in Saigon, where he working for the ‘Viet Long’ photo lab. In 1960, he also left that work to join the Communist revolution in Ca Mau (situated on the southern Mekong delta tip of South Vietnam, a hotbed of Viet Cong activities).

Vo traveled with guerrillas and documented the front line of the Vietnamese resistance for Office of Entertainment, at times climbing trees to get a better angle on the action. Surreal nature of his guerrilla photojournalism was best captured in the photo above from U Minh Forest in 1970, depicting a mobile military medical clinic in the mangroves, doctors and nurses knee-deep in swamp water performing a makeshift shrapnel-removal surgery.

The soldier on the gurney was one of few figures in Vo’s work whose face was exposed. Others sported masks to hide their identities from one another in case of capture and interrogation, and in case that the photos fell into the enemies’ hands.

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Vo carried the medium-format Yashica camera whose film cartridges contained only eight exposures. He developed the negatives in situ and stored them in ammunition boxes with rice for moisture absorption.  Most of his images were never published during the war due to chronic shortages of ink by local papers, but were privately distributed among the guerrillas to boost morale. A rare touring exhibition of his photos was even staged in the guerrilla hideouts from 1962 – 1975.

The photos of guerrilla photojournalists were never reprinted outside the country until the 2000s. Doug Niven, an American news photographer, spotted handmade black-and-white postcards of the war while travelling, and began to track down the surviving Vietnamese war photographers. Their photographers were finally exhibited in 2002 in ‘Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War From the Other Side’ at the International Center of Photography, in collaboration with the National Geographic Society.


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