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Violence et arts visuels

From Vietnam, VA, to Iraq, CA: The Spectrality of Violence in An-My Lê’s Small Wars and 29 Palms

Barbara Kowalczuk

Abstracts

This paper focuses on two of the three photographic projects included in An-My Lê’s Small Wars (2005). The first one, Small Wars (1999–2002) represents Vietnam War reenactors staging combat in the Virginian forest. In the second project, 29 Palms (2003–2004), Lê turns her camera on United States Marines preparing for deployment in Iraq in the California desert. In the series, warfare is either reenacted or rehearsed without the violent outcome of combat being tangibly represented. However, the spectrality of past and impending violence permeates the photographs and confirms the haunting legacy of war iconography. We will examine how Lê uses the American landscape and creates images haunted by the invisible visibility of violence.

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The author wishes to thank An-My Lê for her generous support and for kindly granting the permission to reproduce the images. Special thanks also go to Fabiana Viso, at Murray Guy, New York, for her precious help.

1Landscape photographer An-My Lê was born in Saigon in 1960. When the city fell in April 1975, her family was evacuated and moved to the United States. In the early 1990s, after graduating from the Yale School of Art, Lê visited her native country and worked on her first major photographic project, Viêt Nam (1994–1998). The series mainly focuses on the impressive vegetation, the vastness of the rice paddies and the desolation of rundown buildings. The camera records derelict or empty buildings (Image 1) and captures reminders of the war.

Image 1. An-My Lê, Viêt Nam, Untitled, Hanoi, 1998

Image 1. An-My Lê, Viêt Nam, Untitled, Hanoi, 1998

Gelatin silver print. 20 x 24 inches / 50.8 x 61 cm. Edition of 10. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

  • 1 Griffiths’ seminal work, Vietnam Inc. (1971) contributed to raising the Americans’ opposition to th (...)
  • 2 In the interview, which follows Woodward’s essay, Lê echoes the sentiment of the critic on the issu (...)

2In Untitled, Lao Bao (1988) (16), for instance, the eye of the viewer drifts from the banks of the flat river to the opaque smoke which darkens the horizon. Like Viet Nam at Peace (2005), by Welsh photographer Philip Jones Griffiths,1 Viêt Nam also contains photographs of an urban landscape that bears witness to postwar reconstruction. The pictures were published in Small Wars (2005), along with two other series, Small Wars (1999–2002) and 29 Palms (2003–2004). In the accompanying essay, Richard B. Woodward underscores the way Lê tackles the issue of nostalgia in Viêt Nam by emphasizing “the limitations of her medium in uniting present and past. Because they embed time into their own creation, photographs are in a sense the perfect aide-mémoire,” he writes. “But the memories they conjure up are a tricky, unstable blend of the false and the true—in a manner of most memories” (Lê 113). While the series Viêt Nam was initially conceived to gather and photograph objects related to the childhood in Vietnam, the project evolved and became an artistic opportunity to confront the notions of a Vietnamese landscape both remembered and constructed from memories and family albums. In an interview with Hilton Als, Lê asserts that the confrontation to contemporary Vietnam turned into an esthetic and emotional experience which led her to reconsider her personal approach to her native country by “making photographs that use the real to ground the imaginary”2 (Lê 119). She adds: “The question of war was not central to the photographs I made in Vietnam. Only at the conclusion of this project did I feel ready to tackle that issue head-on. I had to also ask myself: how do you address something that has happened so long ago?” (121). The photographer contacted Vietnam War reenactors and was given permission to attend and photograph the events set in the forests of Virginia. Small Wars (1999–2002) was followed by 29 Palms (2003–2004). The artist pursued her work on the representation of war, this time by photographing military exercises at the Marine Air Ground Control Center, located in 29 Palms, Southern California.

  • 3 In Specters of Marx (1994), Derrida defines the “logic of spectrality” as the absence of distinctio (...)
  • 4 To paraphrase Derrida: “There is first of all the doubtful contemporaneity of the present to itself (...)
  • 5 The word “intericonicity” was introduced by Clément Chéroux in Diplopie. L’Image photographique à (...)
  • 6 “The image is not an isle” (“L’image n’est pas une île”), as Mathilde Arrivé puts it in “L’intellig (...)

3In “Spectrographies,” Jacques Derrida says that the “specter is first and foremost something visible. It is of the visible, but of the invisible visible, it is the visibility of a body which is not present in flesh and blood. It resists the intuition to which it presents itself, it is not tangible” (2002, 115). The visibility of the specter stands as a paradox: it is an invisible visibility whose “logic” derives from the suggestion of an occurrence that has no material nature.3 In An-My Lê’s Small Wars and 29 Palms, although warfare is the central topic, the brutality and the rampage pertaining to combat are hardly ever represented. By departing from combat photography, Lê creates photographs that are haunted by the startling contrast between the war theme and the artist’s violence-free rendering of this theme. The eye-opening contrariety paves the way for the quest of “the invisible visible.” The non representation of violence and the preeminence of the American landscape give Lê’s black and white photographs their singularity. Still, the esthetic handling of war brings the viewer to ponder about the contemporaneity of the photographs to themselves4. These pictures are unique and cannot be seen as imitations of combat photography, which the photographer purposely resists citing. This resistance is a way of eschewing intericonicity5 and shunning the option to clearly establish a relation with other images. But there is a layered resonance at work and it is precisely from this resonance that the spectrality of violence springs. Needless to say, the amplitude of the “invisible visibility of violence in Small Wars and 29 Palms does not depend on “a way of making” but rather on “a way of looking”6. Therefore, contrasting Lê’s images with the repertoire war photographs depends on cultural, personal knowledge. In 29 Palms, the topicality of the conflict is undeniable, however, the series records trainings for a war that remains to be fought. The specter of the upcoming violence takes a dimension of its own in an American West which is itself infused by a history of violence. There is always the question of how the viewer will look at the images and respond to them, what he will or will not make of them. The spectrality of violence in Lê’s photographic work stands as a supplement, something that is and is not, an invisibility that visibly points toward the way art may haunt history.

4In Small Wars, the specter of violence comes from the past. It surfaces because of the contrast between earlier images of the Vietnam War and what Lê chooses to show of the reenactments. Thus, the divergence between the photographed events and previous representations of the violence of the war defies the viewer’s preconceptions of the representation of warfare. This results in probing the persistence of previous images. In 29 Palms, the spectrality of violence is conjugated both in future and past tenses. The future violence of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars is imagined by the military. Fighting, practicing or waiting for combat is no longer reenacted, it is “rehearsed”. The scenes Lê shoots do not refer to the shattering physical and psychological consequences of combat violence. The American landscape becomes a crucial component: it acts both as a substitute for the war zones of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and as an anachronic element which spawns a discontinuity that does not necessarily work against the suspension of disbelief but nevertheless troubles the viewer. Because the Americanness of the landscape does not correspond to the place that it is supposed to represent, it enhances but also interferes with the impression of discrepancy emanating from the grace of the black and white pictures. 29 Palms does not represent what has already occurred; it evokes the prospects of the military, the anticipation of what surely will be. But what also emerges from the photographs is a sense of déjà vu triggered by the connotations of the American West, a place that calls forth another history of violence, the one that took place during Indian Wars.

Small Wars: The invisible visibility of violence

  • 7 “[T]rauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rat (...)
  • 8 In Casey’s words, collective memory “is the circumstance in which different persons, not necessaril (...)
  • 9 The repercussions of the Vietnam Syndrome could be felt during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Th (...)
  • 10 The term “hyperphotograph” is inspired by Genette’s discussion about hypertextuality, defined in Pa (...)

5To Woodward, the “soft-gray palette of [Lê’s] prints can cause temporal confusion in the audience” (111). The term “confusion”, which insinuates misperception, does not perfectly reflect what we see as a coexistence between the visible—the nonviolent and, in Lê’s words, “seamless” (121) staging of combat—and the invisible visible, that is, the specter of a war whose very name, “Vietnam”, conveys traumatic, unassimilated ghosts7. Lê reckons that the project was also a way for her, as well as for the reenactors, to resolve personal issues: “In a way, we were all artists trying to make sense of our own personal baggage” (122). The absence of violence comes as an anomaly that challenges the viewer’s preconceptions, and therefore expectations, of the representation of war. The esthetic experience of the spectrality of violence originates from the tension between the chosen theme and the startling dissimilarities: the faked war has little to do with the real war. The representation of the reenactments contrasts with what the historical context that is referred to, namely the Vietnam War. Lê’s photographs work against the photographic repertoire imprinted in personal, collective and cultural memory8 during and after the Vietnam War. Woodward, noticing the autobiographical scope of Small Wars sees in the latter the continuation of Viêt Nam, though this time, he thinks it is marked by “an even more slippery set of meanings” (113). Lê produces images that differ from those taken during the first televised war. The Vietnam conflict—“Nam” or “Vietnam,” as many veterans name it—was brought up by TV networks onto American dinner tables. The photographs taken by Griffiths, Oliver Noonan, Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Horst Faas and Tim Page, to name but a few, appeared in newspapers and magazines. Page after page, the press showed graphic pictures of bloody corpses, agonizing soldiers reaching out for their wounded buddies, platoons engaged in “Zippo missions” with the intention to burn down huts and villages. The revelations and the photographic documents about the infamous 1968 My Lai massacre, added to the accumulative effect of horrendous images, played a key role in the collective memory of the war.9 Although Lê has vivid memories of the conflict from her teenage years spent in Saigon, she also discovered it through museum exhibitions, cinematographic, photographic and historical sources. Small Wars, she says, stands as a photographic symbolization of collective and individual memory (119). It materializes the residue of what Lê calls “the Vietnam of the mind” (qtd. in Irvine n.p.): time is arrested, home is returned in imagination. As Kate Flint puts it, it ensures “the continuation of the past into the present […], the poignant hope of an impossible endurance” (534). The violence which emanates from the photographs does not actually come from the contents of the framed subjects, but from what is spectral and comes to be remembered thanks to a system of references, associations and personal acquaintance with combat photography. Lê resists imitating or citing former pictures. No image is turned into a hyperphotograph10, that is, a photograph that would establish exclusive interactions with other images. The possibility to relate in an absolute way to war photojournalism, to the ghastly pictures taken back in the sixties and the early seventies, is challenged by the way Lê departs from the codes of combat photography. But by doing violence to the grammar of war representation, by avoiding the symbolization of extreme violence, which could be conveyed through the presence of blood, traumatizing details of destroyed bodies or torn landscape, Lê highlights a dissonance that paradoxically heightens the resonance and the persistence of the repertoire of violent images it resists referring to.

6The contrast between theme and representation is perceptible in the title of the series, which gives no clues about the historical event that is reenacted and photographed. The plural form denotes the repetition of the reenactments. As for the adjective, it both contradicts the commitment of the participants, which is everything but insignificant, and the tragic impacts of the Vietnam War. One may surmise that somehow, these “small wars” are related to the “personal baggage” Lê mentions in the interview. If one does not rely upon the peritext and the ninth caption, Viet Cong Camp (49), it is impossible to make the connection between the reenactments and the Vietnam War.

Image 2. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Brambles, 1999-2002

Image 2. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Brambles, 1999-2002

Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

  • 11 To give emblematic examples, we will mention Brambles (42), Tall Grass II et Tall Grass I (44-45), (...)

7The correlation between the photographic referent and the historical reference is actually thwarted by the scenography and the landscape, which is far from being a perfect duplication of the original war theatre, as Brambles shows (42, Image 2). Rosalind Krauss stipulated that the photograph “heralds a disruption in the autonomy of the sign. A meaninglessness surrounds it which can only be filled in by the addition of a text” (Krauss 77). Although this is, in our view, a debatable argument—a photograph denotes a meaning that does not require necessarily the addition of a caption—, the presence of text nevertheless leads the viewer to take its function into consideration. Captions do not work from a fixed system. The text and the image can be complementary, the first providing thematic, chronological or contextual information which is confirmed by what the second denotes. The caption can also verbally repeat (or announce, depending on what the viewer sees first) what the picture shows, which results in redundancy. Finally, the linguistic code can be used to express something that contradicts the content of the photograph. In Small Wars, the relation between text and image is mostly redundant and hardly ever evokes the context of war11. Some captions, though, are equivocal or conflicting. For instance, Viet Cong Camp shows two idle white men dressed as Viet Cong fighters and sitting in the middle of a thick forest which, noticeably, is not the jungle of Vietnam. The framed reenactors sit on a rectangle platform that looks like a miniature stage. The scene also reminds that the Vietnamese combatants were most of the time invisible and that very few images of their camps circulated during the war.

8In the rare pictures that show close shots of the reenactors, the latter look clean and vigorous. The bodies bear no traces of injuries. In Stars and Stripes (65), two men sit on wooden boxes: one of them stares absentmindedly at the ground and wipes his head with a cloth, while the other is reading a document. Apart from his gun and a helmet, there is no indication that this is the reenactment of a war scene. Though the participants recreate routines and combat and use the paraphernalia they have collected—uniforms, tents, grounded choppers or airplanes are of the period—these elements are barely visible. Out of the twenty-four photographs included in the collection, ten are deprived of the physical presence of the reenactors. The wilderness of Virginia is framed in a way that offers the American landscape a primary and influential role. The silhouettes of the reenactors are blurred, like in Ambush I (59), lost in the foliage (Image 3), or turned into shadows surrounded by darkness. “The idea of terrain was something that always came up when I talked to Vietnam vets,” Lê says. “Landscape was important to strategy and I wanted to explore that” (Schiller n. p.). The creeks, the trails and the flora provide disruptive and betraying signs of fabrication: the greenery, the American dense forests, with their monumental pine and oak trees, have little in common with the stifling, chlorophyll-saturated jungle of Vietnam.

Image 3. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Tall Grass II, 1999-2002

Image 3. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Tall Grass II, 1999-2002

Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

9What is being reenacted is a transposition that counters war images. The consequence of the contrast is a feeling of displacement as if the events captured by the camera did not belong to the place. To Woodward, this sense of displacement provides a “science-fiction quality, as though [Lê] were recording events from decades or perhaps centuries ago” (Lê 112). Not only is the contrast amplified by the non-gory perspective, but it is also accentuated by the aestheticization of warfare. The explosions and the flares that illuminate the sky at night look like irradiating fireworks which confer a peculiar, sophisticated touch, as is the case in Explosion (53), Mortar (54) and Distant Flare (55, Image 4).

Image 4. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Mortar, 1999-2002

Image 4. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Mortar, 1999-2002

Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

10The sophistication and the incongruity of nonviolence are puzzling. The imaging of the reenactments strays away from war iconography by providing alternative visual accounts. These entail deviation and interaction all at once. Make-believe triggers a sense of dislocation, yet it is precisely, and paradoxically, this displacement that guides the viewer to conduct the merging of the two Vietnams. In GI (63, Image 5), a “soldier” sitting alone stares at the camera. Next to him, his helmet and his rifle lie on the ground. The wild grasses are tall, dense. There are no traces of physical wounds or battle fatigue upon his face or body. The land is deprived of the desolation generated by actual fighting. However, the man’s gaze summons other gazes, those photographed during the war. The serenity emanating from the frame is unsettled by the spectrality of violence which filters through the scene. The eye apprehends the pose of the fighter, registers the helmet and the rifle, but here, like elsewhere, the absence of violence becomes an intrusive and haunting discontinuity that uncovers the invisible visibility of what is not shown. According to Barthes, every photograph comprises something “terrible”: “the return of the dead” (1981, 9). Still, in Lê’s image, this return does not so much concern the photographed subject; rather, the occurrence of the dead originates from outside the frame and surrounds the reenactor in a non-tangible way. The latter is posing and performing, which is a form of being and not being. The break this “soldier” is taking occurs in a natural environment that holds no trace of the devastation that, for example, permeates McCullin’s black and white Shell Shocked US Marine The Battle of Hue (1968). In this picture, a traumatized soldier, clinging on his weapon, stares blankly at the camera. Along with many other casualties photographed during the war, this Marine, absolutely gone and consumed by his traumatization, returns and haunts Lê’s photograph.

Image 5. An-My Lê, Small Wars, GI, 1999-2002

Image 5. An-My Lê, Small Wars, GI, 1999-2002

Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

  • 12 According to Woodward (114), the reenacting movement in the US became popular only after 1975, the (...)
  • 13 Postmemory is “a structure of inter- and trans-generational transmission of traumatic knowledge and (...)

11Because of their subject, Lê’s images leave us to consider America’s pathological fixation to the Vietnam War. Lê is aware that the reenactors’ motivations differ from one man to another: the group is composed of veterans, vets’ sons or relatives, men who could not join the army, and history connoisseurs. Their passion for reenacting the Vietnam War may therefore stem from the need to fathom what they or their own kith and kin went through. It may also be sustained by a deep interest in military history. Woodward insists on Lê’s personal relation to the paradox of reenactment: although the quest of “living history” is authenticity, it is “inevitably an exercise in fakery”12 (114). This inherent impossibility stimulates the photographer: she goes beyond simulacrum and aims at sharing with the future viewers of her photographs the sincerity of the “time travelers”, as reenactors call themselves (114). They play and repeat staged tours of duty that revisit a history of violence. Far from being judgmental, the photographer respects the anachronic warriors. By documenting and taking part in the events, she creates an artistic venture symbolizing in a personal way a conflict that tore her native country and divided the American nation. The uncommon, remarkable, absence of violence—its spectrality—raises the issue of the postgeneration’s memory and more precisely, familial and “affiliative” postmemory, to use Hirsch’s distinction13 (114). By photographing the reenactments of a war still considered as the evil stain that smeared the national ethos, Lê also points out the haunting violence of unsettled remembering.

12To be accepted by the men, Lê had to be part of the cast and “play war” with them. Her ethnicity added a touch of veracity to the events. In Lesson (67, Image 6), she acts as a “Kit Carson” scout—i.e., a turncoat who worked with the US Army and was often used as a translator.

Image 6. An-My Lê. Small Wars, Lesson, 1999-2002

Image 6. An-My Lê. Small Wars, Lesson, 1999-2002

Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

13Sniper I (57, Image 7) is undoubtedly one of her most arresting pictures: she performs as a Vietcong gunman lying on the ground and aiming at American fighters. Ironically, the photograph lends a body and a face to the notoriously invisible, spooky enemy. In other terms, Lê reverses the original situation. The spectral foe, who inhabited the tunnels, hid in the mountains and in the jungle, was an ethereal figure the US troops could hardly ever see or locate. Sniper I gives shape to the violence of this spectrality through the figure of the sniper, a conspicuous presence that highlights the photograph’s self-reflexivity. The invisible photographer shoots the visible Vietnamese shooter, that is, in an act of metaphorical and physical splitting, Lê shoots herself. Her posture, the way she blends in the tall grass, holding the rifle as if it were a camera and aiming at the American enemy who is firing back, mirrors her position and work as a photographer but also recalls the fact that before becoming a refugee in the US, she was once a civilian living in a country devastated by war.

14With 29 Palms, violence is once again a remarkable absence. This time, as we will see, there is a two-fold spectrality that emanates from the landscape of the American West used by the army to stage wars whose very imagery belongs to the future.

Image 7. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Sniper I, 1999-2002

Image 7. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Sniper I, 1999-2002

Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

29 Palms: The violence that will be

1529 Palms, shot after it was too late for Lê to be accepted as an embedded photographer in Iraq, is named after the desert outpost where Marines trained for combat before going to Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the theater of war represented in Small Wars, the series incorporates spectacle, specters and spectrality, that is, manifestation and dramatization all at once. The photographs represent United States Marines preparing for deployment overseas and play-acting scenarios in the California desert. Yet, just like in Small Wars, there is an unexpected discrepancy between the military training and the location that is meant to stand for the future war zones. The luminous Mojave Desert and the isolated town hardly look like Baghdad, Fallujah or the Afghan valleys and though Lê turns her camera on genuine drill, the Marines often appear as impassive or undaunted subjects. Some “play” American soldiers; others incarnate Iraqis, like in Security and Stability Operations, Iraqi Police (Lê 88), where four Marines wearing immaculate white shirts act as armed Iraqi policemen. Smoking and chatting nonchalantly, they look idle and detached from their patrol assignment. In some pictures, troops are absent and replaced by winding convoys of tanks, trucks and military gear. LCAC (Landing Craft Air-Cushioned), Night Operations III and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (Lê 83, 92, 97) expose the power of war technology and the destruction it can generate. Yet, close-ups are rare, like in Small Wars. In most shots, such as Mechanized Assault (75, Image 8) or Infantry Platoon, Attack (Lê 99), the equipment and the men’s silhouettes vanish in the horizon, becoming dark, undistinguishable particles lost in the depth of the scope. In fact, in the vistas of the mammoth rocks and the massive mountains shot in the panorama format, one feels the legacy of landscape photographers William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams and Robert Adams. Seen from the distance, the military vehicles recall the pioneers’ wagons that used to cross the region. If in Small Wars Lê used the contrast between the Virginian forest and Vietnam’s jungle, here she is galvanized by the grandeur of a scenery that inspired filmmakers and gave Hollywood westerns their most characteristic and memorable sets. The US Army tents are reminiscent of Indian teepees (Bivouac, Lê 95), while the whitish smoke concealing the hills in some pictures is a reminder of the fact that, once upon a time, the area was inhabited by warriors of another kind who fought in the Indian Wars. As a consequence, the photographs capture a location filled with the specter of real combat, presently prepared by the army, but they are also read through the prism of the inescapable mythic essence of the panorama, its connection to the legends of the American West and the brutal acts that took place there. The magnificence of the photographed landscape and the epic aura of the latter serve as a set twice haunted, by future and by past violence.

Image 8. An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Mechanized Assault, 2003-04

Image 8. An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Mechanized Assault, 2003-04

Gelatin silver print. 26 1/2 x 38 inches / 67.31 x 96.52 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

  • 14 We have in mind, of course, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kurtz’s words: “The horror! The h (...)
  • 15 “The ‘Pathos Formula’, which expresses this traumatic encounter between man and the world, is a res (...)

16Lê’s angle of vision is not historiographical; it explores the haunted essence of the vast landscape, its being “besieged” by an imagery drawn from cinematographic versions which have contributed to nurturing the prevalent conceptions of the West in popular culture. Once again, there are no specific references to former images, but the interaction between American mythologies, as they were imagined in motion pictures, and the preparation of war results in a transposition permeated by the ghosts of the past. Lê’s photographs are not “grafted” to particular previous images or stills. In other terms, they do not imitate. Yet, the transformation of 29 Palms into Iraq occurs in a natural “set” whose legendary eminence cannot be ignored. The Americanized transposition of the Middle East is highlighted by the sublime nature which surrounds the tiny and toy-like silhouettes of the soldiers. Simultaneously, the landscape rouses specters from the past and anticipates the fate of specters to-be. In Combat Operations Center Guard (Lê 80), in the middle ground of the picture, a mound of sand is marked with a black cross. In Security and Stabilization Operations, Marines (Lê 91), two combatants are arresting a man. Dressed in fatigues and wearing a gas mask, another Marine stands against a white barrack and observes them, his hands in his pockets. The attitude contrasts with the operation taking place in the foreground but also with the violence that awaits the Marines, whatever war theatre they will serve in. In Fallujah, in the Iraqi desert, in Abu Ghraib, in the rocky valleys or remote villages of Afghanistan, American soldiers will have choices to make. Unethical and fierce acts will be avoided or, on the contrary, imposed upon the enemy and the civilians. Lê photographs the staged war zone as a ghostly, frozen place in which bloodshed, agonizing yelling and shocking scenes are not present. No horror! No horror!14 Appalling war images and exhausted “pathos formula”15 are neutralized. Susan Sontag stipulates that the photographic shock is deeply connected to novelty: “One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany” (19). 29 Palms is a military training site in which Marines use live fires, but there are very few signs of them in Lê’s images. The unexpected, eerie suppression of violence imposes discontinuity and prevents desensitization. In Mortar Impact (100, Image 9), the viewer first contemplates the smoke blurring the horizon, before noticing in the foreground and slightly on the left, the aligned containers. A closer look at them unveils painted, upper-case letters forming a message: “DO NOT SHOOT”. As it is fixed on the photograph, the military warning now points to the self-reflexivity of the picture. Like Lê’s appearance as a sniper, it reflects the photographic gesture. But it is also read as a reminder that the scene is not a war zone: it is a “stage” where rehearsing violent combat is not lethal and where the photographer can shoot what must not be shot.

Image 9. An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Mortar Impact, 2003-04

Image 9. An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Mortar Impact, 2003-04

Gelatin silver print. 26 1/2 x 38 inches / 67.31 x 96.52 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

  • 16 Linda Hutcheon argues that photographic models become metaphors for “the related issue of narrative (...)
  • 17 Their equipment required long exposure times and complex developing processes.

17In Camera Lucida, Barthes states that “[w]hat the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once” (4). Yet, if “the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially” (4), in 29 Palms, Lê photographs military practice that repeats what cannot be repeated (existentially) inasmuch as it has not happened yet. Still, what is rehearsed foreshadows an impending carnage but it is also infiltrated by the spectrality of the violence that took place during Indian Wars. The Marines pose to resemble what they think a Marine looks like, when, a Marine is what each of these men actually is. What they seem to be unaware of, however, is the fact that their presence in the desert and their simulation of military operations, incite the viewer to travel back in time. Though Lê confers the hallmarks of documentary perspective on her work, once again she deconstructs combat photography and records fictions16 that now call forth the ghosts of cowboys and Indians. The anachronistic technique plays a key role for it generates artfully composed shots thanks to the use of a five-by-seven-inch view camera—the same kind Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, George N. Barnard or Timothy O’Sullivan used to photograph the battlefields during the Civil War. Lê embraces, only to reverse it in a subtle way, the legacy of these early image traffickers. Technically speaking, they could not photograph from the epicenter of the warfare fracas,17 which led some of them to stage in spectacular manner the corpses lying on the battlefields. Lê’s frames resonate with a strange, disquieting stillness; they radiate with an air of weird immobility, unnatural timelessness. Because they cannot, will not, be suffused with the adrenaline of photojournalism, they discommode the viewer’s gaze and do violence to the preconceptions of war representation. Time seems out of joint: it is obstructed in an inexplicable, perplexing way. This timelessness confers an almost supernatural texture to the photographic recording of events that bear a resemblance to what we now know of these wars, while not reaching the level of violence that the Iraqi civilians and the American military had to face. “[H]er oblique commentary on the fractious Iraq war,” writes Woodward, “exhibits a stateliness, a classical reserve more in tune with Poussin’s scenes of Greek and Roman antiquity than with photojournalism” (Lê 112). The photographer focuses on officers briefing their men, looking through binoculars and searching the horizon for an invisible enemy. Yet, despite the camouflage print on the Marines’ fatigues, matching the location with a particular, real war, remains difficult. In the two pictures entitled Security and Stabilization Operations, Graffiti (Lê 87, 89) and in Security and Stabilization Operations, Iraqi Police (88, Image 10), anti-America rudimentary graffiti ordered by the Pentagon have been sprayed on the walls of the military barracks to reinforce a wartime, threatening situation: GOOD SADDAM, BUSH DONKEY, FREE SADDAM, DOWN USA and the word POLICE, crossed out, appear next to what is supposed to refer to Arabic words but is in fact a fake language. In addition, the town’s abodes and the deserted, derelict white barracks evoke an abandoned film set, which adds to the sense of make-believe. The forthcoming violence looms in a stagy theater of deployment so overexposed to the Californian sun that every image becomes almost surreal, pregnant with a moonlike atmosphere.

Image 10. An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Security and Stabilization Operations, Iraqi Police, 2003-04

Image 10. An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Security and Stabilization Operations, Iraqi Police, 2003-04

Gelatin silver print. 26 1/2 x 38 inches / 67.31 x 96.52 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York

  • 18 In Remembering: A Phenomenological Study (1987, 181-215) and Getting Back Into Place (1993), Casey (...)
  • 19[…] la prégnance de l’avenir et du passé dans le présent.
  • 20la prégnance de l’autre dans le même et de l’ailleurs dans l’ici.
  • 21 “Nothing could seem further apart than photography and abstract painting, the one wholly dependent (...)

18Lê states: “I am also driven to tell another story. I am interested in an investigation of military culture outside of the sphere of combat” (Walleston n.p.). She records an endless landscape that is used by the army as if it were less a site than a place of violence. This place, to borrow from the philosophy of Edward S. Casey, is meant to represent an abode where something is personally lived, “[…] an arena of action that is at once physical and historical, social and cultural”18 (2001, 683). However, Lê’s photographs of the preparations are like the land they incorporate within their frames: they bear what geographer Augustin Berque calls “epochality”—“the significant influence of the future and the past onto the present”19 (329), but they also endure the stigmata of “mediance”, that is, “the significant influence of the other in the same and of what is elsewhere in what is here”20 (329). In 29 Palms, there is no such “same”, as no previous image of the Iraq War existed at the time Lê undertook the project. But the location of the training is heavily marked by what once took place in the mountains and vast spaces of the West. “For me,” says Lê, “the language of landscape photography involves using scale to weave narratives; to create tension” (Walleston n.p.). This tension arises from the cohabitation of the mythologies of the West and the present narratives which are encompassed by an almost painterly formalism.21

Conclusion

19“Any photograph has multiple meanings,” says Susan Sontag. “The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: ‘There is the surface. Now think—or rather feel, intuit—what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way’” (23). Overtime, the initial reading of the 29 Palms series has acquired another dimension: the legacy of the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, on the one hand, and the media’s response to the collection of combat photographs taken throughout the decade, on the other had, have come to offer new perspectives. What strikes most, retrospectively, is the way Lê’s photographic recording of the trainings seems to have reflected in advance what would remain of the combat imagery of the two conflicts: a collection of photographic documents filled with signs of violence—smoke, flares, artillery, chaos in the cities, tanks—but no representation of the kind of traumatization and mutilation that can be seen in the Vietnam War iconography. Lê conceives her photographic medium as something that exists to reconcile “one’s own experience with other people’s ideas of it and against general expectations. It’s about understanding how one’s experience fits into the larger scheme of things and finding a personal equilibrium within that” (Lê 125). If her photographic art provides her with the means to “conjur[e] up a sense of clarity,” as she says (125), one may also see the spectrality of violence as an abstraction that invites the viewer to explore and cross the surface of the photograph. Abstraccio, astrazione: the action of extracting a foreign body from a wound. By eschewing deliberate references to former images, by haunting the Americanness of the landscape, Lê invents “her” wars and provides the spectrality of violence with a space whose “invisible visibility” will be captured by the eyes of those who cross the frames and the surface of the photographs and look beyond them to pay a visit to the ghosts of past and present times.

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Bibliography

Arrivé, Mathilde. “L’intelligence des images – l’intericonicité, enjeux et méthodes.” E-rea 13. 1 (2015). N.p. 15 December 2015. Web. 13 June 2016. <http://erea.revues.org/4620>.

Assmann, Jan, and John Czaplicka. “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity.” New German Critique 65, Cultural History/Cultural Studies (spring-summer 1995): 125-133.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981.

Berque, Augustin. “De peuples en pays ou la trajectoire paysagère”. Les enjeux du paysage. Ed. Michel Collot. Brussels: Ousia, 1997. 320-329.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience. Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Casey, Edward S. “Between Geography and Philosophy: What Does It Mean to Be in the Place-World?”. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91. 4 (December 2001): 683-693.

Casey, Edward S. Getting Back Into Place. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Casey, Edward S. “Public Memory in Place and Time.” Framing Public Memory. Ed. Kendall R. Phillips. Tuscaloosa: Alabama UP, 2004. 17-44. PDF file.

Casey, Edward S. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, (1987) 2000.

Chéroux, Clément. Diplopie. L’Image photographique à l’ère des médias globalisés. Essai sur le 11 septembre 2001. Cherbourg-Octeville : Le Point du Jour, 2009.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, (1899) 1990.

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Derrida, Jacques and Bernard Stiegler. Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews. Trans. Jennifer Bajorek. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2002.

Efal, Adi. “Warburg’s ‘Pathos Formula’ in Psychoanalytic and Benjaminian Contexts.” Asaph 5 (2000): 221-238.

Flint, Kate. “Painting Memory.” Textual Practice 17. 3 (2003): 527-542.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests. Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1997.

Griffiths, Philip Jones. Agent Orange. “Collateral Damage” in Viet Nam. London: Trolley, 2003.

Griffiths, Philip Jones. Viet Nam at Peace. London: Trolley, 2005.

Griffiths, Philip Jones. Vietnam Inc. London: Phaidon Press, (1971) 2001.

Hirsch, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today 29. 1 (Spring 2008): 103-128.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Irvine, Karen. “An-My Lê: Small Wars, Oct 27-Jan 6, 2007, ‘Under the Clouds of War’.” MOCP, The Museum of Contemporary Photography. Columbia College Chicago, n.d. Web. 23 March 2015. <http://www.mocp.org/exhibitions/2006/10/an-my-le-small-wars.php >.

Krauss, Rosalind. “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America. Part 2.” October 4 (Autumn 1977): 58-67.

Lê, An-My. Small Wars. New York: Aperture, 2005.

McCullin, Don. Shell Shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue. 1968. Gelatin silver print. Victoria and Albert Museum, England.

Restrepo. Dirs. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. National Geographic Entertainment, 2010. Documentary film.

Schiller, Jakob. “War Training Camp Photographer Pulls Down a MacArthur Genius Grant.” WIRED. N.p., 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 24 March 2015. <http://www.wired.com/2012/10/an-my-le/#slideid-494061>.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, (1977) 1990.

Walleston, Aimee. “Battles for War Photography: An-My Lê.” Art in America. N.p., 15 Sept. 2010. Web. 24 March 2015. <http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/an-my-le/>.

Links for pictures

Lê, An-My. http://www.anmyle.com

Murray Guy. New York. http://murrayguy.com

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Notes

1 Griffiths’ seminal work, Vietnam Inc. (1971) contributed to raising the Americans’ opposition to the conflict. Thanks to his continued revisiting of Vietnam, he uncovered the extent of what he considered to be genocide, ecocide and culturecide. Agent Orange. “Collateral Damage” in Viet Nam (2003) documents the suffering of Napalm and Agent Orange victims.

2 In the interview, which follows Woodward’s essay, Lê echoes the sentiment of the critic on the issue of nostalgia: “My attachment to the idea of landscape is a direct extension of a life in exile” (119).

3 In Specters of Marx (1994), Derrida defines the “logic of spectrality” as the absence of distinction between “the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being and non-being (“to be or not to be”, in the conventional reading), in the opposition between what is present and what is not, for example in the form of objectivity” (12). In other terms, spectrality overrides “the border between the present, the actual or present reality of the present, and everything that can be opposed to absence, non-presence, non-effectivity, inactuality, virtuality, or even the simulacrum in general, and so forth” (48).

4 To paraphrase Derrida: “There is first of all the doubtful contemporaneity of the present to itself. Before knowing whether one can differentiate between the specter of the past and the specter of the future, of the past present and the future present, one must perhaps ask oneself whether the spectrality effect does not consist in undoing this opposition, or even this dialectic, between actual, effective presence and its other” (1994, 48). Spectrality, in the Derridean sense, does away with the notion of history’s closure.

5 The word “intericonicity” was introduced by Clément Chéroux in Diplopie. L’Image photographique à l’ère des médias globalisés (2009). Chéroux (269) draws upon Gérard Genette’s notion of “intertextuality”, that is, “an enunciation whose full meaning presupposes the perception of a relationship between it and another text, to which it necessarily refers by some inflections that would otherwise remain intelligible” (Genette 2).

6 “The image is not an isle” (“L’image n’est pas une île”), as Mathilde Arrivé puts it in “L’intelligence des images – l’intericonicité, enjeux et méthodes” (2015) (par. 1). We borrow the distinction from her. She insists that intericonicity, although it works similarly to intertextuality, is a “non-verbal system”: it is “a way of making” (“une manière de faire”) and “a way of looking” (“une manière de voir”) (par. 13).

7 “[T]rauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on” (Caruth 1996, 4).

8 In Casey’s words, collective memory “is the circumstance in which different persons, not necessarily known to each other at all, nevertheless recall the same event – again, each in her own way. This is a case of remembering neither individually in isolation from others, nor in the company of others with whom one is acquainted, but remembering severally” (2004, 23). Cultural memory, according to Jan Assmann, “is characterized by its distance from the everyday. Distance from the everyday (transcendence) marks its temporal horizon. Cultural memory has its fixed point; its horizon does not change with the passing of time. These fixed points are fateful events of the past, whose memory is maintained through cultural formation (texts, rites, monuments) and institutional communication (recitation, practice, observance). We call these ‘figures of memory’” (Assmann and Czaplicka, 128-129).

9 The repercussions of the Vietnam Syndrome could be felt during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pictures taken by embedded photographers were sanitized or regulated by the US government. Since the Vietnam War, images showing dead or wounded American soldiers have been a rarity. On the Afghanistan War, see the 2010 documentary film Restrepo, directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington.

10 The term “hyperphotograph” is inspired by Genette’s discussion about hypertextuality, defined in Palimpsests (1997) as “any relationship uniting a text B (…the hypertext) to an earlier text A (…the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary” (5). Lê’s photographic work, as we see it, is not “grafted” to any specific “hypophotograph”.

11 To give emblematic examples, we will mention Brambles (42), Tall Grass II et Tall Grass I (44-45), Path (46), Creek (56), Bamboo (61). These titles reflect the preeminence of landscape.

12 According to Woodward (114), the reenacting movement in the US became popular only after 1975, the year of the fall of Saigon, when the possibility of dying in combat was no longer an issue for men.

13 Postmemory is “a structure of inter- and trans-generational transmission of traumatic knowledge and experience. It is a consequence of traumatic recall but (unlike posttraumatic stress disorder) at a generational remove” (Hirsch 106).

14 We have in mind, of course, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kurtz’s words: “The horror! The horror!” (178).

15 “The ‘Pathos Formula’, which expresses this traumatic encounter between man and the world, is a result of a visual fixation, the source of which is a process of mimicry of some of the bearable (biomorphic) qualities of the threatening force, that then becomes petrified and fixed as an image. The original referent is one that exceeds the limits of every-day human consciousness, and that threatens its security and coherence” (Efal 221).

16 Linda Hutcheon argues that photographic models become metaphors for “the related issue of narrative representation—its powers and its limitations, particularly for the telling of history” (45). She links fiction and photography since “both forms have traditionally been assumed to be transparent media which paradoxically could master/capture/fix the real” (39).

17 Their equipment required long exposure times and complex developing processes.

18 In Remembering: A Phenomenological Study (1987, 181-215) and Getting Back Into Place (1993), Casey distinguishes place from site, the latter being a geometric and abstract conception of space: “Just as imagination takes us forward into the realm of the purely possible—into what might be—so memory brings us back into the domain of the actual and the already elapsed: to what has been. Place ushers us into what already is: namely, the environing subsoil of our embodiment, the bedrock of our being-in-the-world. If imagination projects us out beyond ourselves while memory takes us back behind ourselves, place subtends and enfolds us, lying perpetually under and around us. In imagining and remembering, we go into the ethereal and the thick respectively. By being in place, we find ourselves in what is subsistent and enveloping” (1993, xvi-xvii).

19[…] la prégnance de l’avenir et du passé dans le présent.

20la prégnance de l’autre dans le même et de l’ailleurs dans l’ici.

21 “Nothing could seem further apart than photography and abstract painting, the one wholly dependent upon the world for the source of its imagery, the other shunning that world and the images it might provide. […] As paradoxical as it might seem, photography has increasingly become the operative model for abstraction” (Krauss 58).

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List of illustrations

Title Image 1. An-My Lê, Viêt Nam, Untitled, Hanoi, 1998
Caption Gelatin silver print. 20 x 24 inches / 50.8 x 61 cm. Edition of 10. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-1.png
File image/png, 261k
Title Image 2. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Brambles, 1999-2002
Caption Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-2.png
File image/png, 374k
Title Image 3. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Tall Grass II, 1999-2002
Caption Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 116k
Title Image 4. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Mortar, 1999-2002
Caption Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 44k
Title Image 5. An-My Lê, Small Wars, GI, 1999-2002
Caption Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 100k
Title Image 6. An-My Lê. Small Wars, Lesson, 1999-2002
Caption Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 128k
Title Image 7. An-My Lê, Small Wars, Sniper I, 1999-2002
Caption Silver gelatin print. 26.5 x 38 in / 67 x 97 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 72k
Title Image 8. An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Mechanized Assault, 2003-04
Caption Gelatin silver print. 26 1/2 x 38 inches / 67.31 x 96.52 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 72k
Title Image 9. An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Mortar Impact, 2003-04
Caption Gelatin silver print. 26 1/2 x 38 inches / 67.31 x 96.52 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-9.png
File image/png, 320k
Title Image 10. An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Security and Stabilization Operations, Iraqi Police, 2003-04
Caption Gelatin silver print. 26 1/2 x 38 inches / 67.31 x 96.52 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/4861/img-10.jpg
File image/jpeg, 51k
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References

Electronic reference

Barbara Kowalczuk, « From Vietnam, VA, to Iraq, CA: The Spectrality of Violence in An-My Lê’s Small Wars and 29 Palms », Sillages critiques [Online], 22 | 2017, Online since 30 March 2017, connection on 21 September 2017. URL : http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/4861

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About the author

Barbara Kowalczuk

Université de Bordeaux, CLIMAS EA 4196
baba.ko.bk@gmail.com
Barbara Kowalczuk enseigne à l’Université de Bordeaux. Sa recherche porte sur la représentation littéraire et photographique de la guerre et du trauma.
Barbara Kowalczuk is affiliated with the University of Bordeaux. Her research interests lie in literary and photographic representations of war and trauma.

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