Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bangkok photojournalist Lance Woodruff reflects on life, death and role of journalists covering the Vietnam War

Poet and playright Federico Garcia Lorca's statue in Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid.Image by Stefan van Drake.

Bangkok-based photo-journalist, editor and writer Lance Woodruff (Macalester College Class of 1964) posts this contribution as an artist, friend and long-time veteran war and Southeast Asian correspondent, and now as self-assessed 'veteran of the war.'

By Lance Woodruff

In San Francisco in 1986, nearly 20 years after leaving Vietnam in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, I learned and finally accepted that I was a veteran of the war.

Media coverage of Dienbienphu, God, Russian literature and the Spanish Civil War were part of my reason for going to Saigon as a 23-year-old photojournalist.

I admired Hungarian photojournalist Robert Capa who had died in northern Vietnam in May 1954. As an 11-year-old schoolboy in Ohio I listened to radio broadcasts of the siege of Dienbienphu in my grade six classroom and believed that civilization would essentially come to an end if 'the Viets’ were victorious over the French.

By the time I arrived in Saigon in 1966 with two Pentax Spotmatics, a 6x6 Bronica and an Uher tape recorder the size of a small suitcase filled with bricks, I imagined myself as Leo Tolstoy’s Pierre in ‘War and Peace’. 

I thought that I would document war and its aftermath, walking around the edge of battlefields after the shooting was over, and that I would describe it, photograph and publish it, and then we would all stop doing these things to each other. I would write the great American novel. I imagined that war could be solved.

On a combat mission in an American A1E fighter-bomber over the Ho Chi Minh Trail west of Pleiku, however, I looked death in the face and saw nothing pretty about it.

I simply understood that I would die. Repeated dives against three anti-aircraft positions plus soldiers on the ground shooting at my aircraft filled the air with tracers. I shot back with my cameras, blindly. 

On that flight I carried two items, a small leather bound King James Version of the Bible and a typed copy of ‘Monte de El Pardo’ by Spanish poet Rafael Alberti.

In Vietnam I saw death and understood something about the taking away of life and the future for women and men, for children of any age. In peacetime one prepares for a future that does not usually mean the daily approach of death.

Journalists are witnesses, when one has witnessed much, there is a responsibility to share what it means, or might mean. Looking forward to the new year I survey the year past, of memories shared with journalists from many countries.

What does have meaning? What does matter? What is the value of a life? 

One example comes to mind, Phung thi Le Ly, a peasant child in Quang Nam, was born a sickly two pounds—so small that her midwife wanted to kill her immediately

"Suffocate her!" the midwife told Le Ly's mother, Tran thi Huyen. Born to a middle-aged mother at work in the rice fields when her water broke, the child wasn't expected to live.

Her mother refused to follow traditional wisdom regarding "runts," and the infant survived, earning the nickname "Con Troi Nuoi", child nourished by God.

Today Phung thi Le Ly carries small libraries and medical services and training to the rural people of Quang Nam.

Rock on and practice peace and love. Also, see ArtTraveler's videos on YouTube.

Stefan, the ArtTraveler(TM)

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