Graduate Student Spotlight- Trung PQ Nguyen

December 13, 2018

Images of the Vietnamese Human: Visuality and the U.S. War in Southeast Asia

Most college students in the U.S. are exposed to the visual archive of war in Southeast Asia from 1964 to 1973 through news footage used in documentaries, fictional filmic depictions, and/or iconic photographs. In these images, the cinematic images of mangled Vietnamese bodies in various states of brutality or deprivation generated feelings of guilt, indignation, horror, and even pleasure in American spectators. Decades later, we continue to see similar types of depictions in other areas of “humanitarian concern” in order to accumulate public support for militarized intervention.

Yet decades before formal U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, very different kinds of images introduced Vietnamese subjects to American spectators with similar effects. In the late 1940s, Life magazine published a photo essay on the former French colony on the midst of decolonization. These images depicted Vietnam as a place of possibility and danger, abundance and stagnation, modernity and atemporality, familiarity and mystery. Before this, few Americans had seen such vibrant photos of Southeast Asia, let alone heard of the region.  

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Americans watching the Tet Offensive on television. Warren K. Leffler. 1968.

The cover photo depicts these imagined narratives clearly: three “Annamite” women (“Annam” was the name of the French colony of central Vietnam until 1948), in luxurious ethnic-modern clothing, leisure freely in a beautifully manicured garden. Unlike the images of brutality in the following decade, this image sought to generate feelings of similarity and civility between the Vietnamese subjects and the Americans who viewed them. Yet like the images of humanitarian concern we are more familiar with, this photograph of liberal bourgeois progress was used as a technique to accrue support for counterinsurgent campaigns against the people’s army and decolonial forces. In short, images of beauty, not just brutality, were also used to legitimate militarized intervention in Southeast Asia.

These photographs were used to expand the reach of America’s burgeoning empire across the Pacific and consolidate the national body in a moment when anti-racist movements exposed the fundamental violence of the nation-state. Similar photos would be published about Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, and China. This history ought to move us to think carefully about the narratives imbued in images to consider what they tell (and don’t tell) us about the dynamics of power in an age of mass media, permanent war, and racialized violence.  

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“Indo-China”, Page 97, Life, March 7, 1949.