Currier Museum exhibit revisits photographers’ unprecedented access to Vietnam War
The natural inclination when viewing the Currier Museum’s new “Visual Dispatches from the Vietnam War” exhibit is to focus on the faces. The vacant eyes of the U.S. Marine preparing to leave the battle zone. The terrorized expressions of the Vietnamese women cowering in a muddy canal. The rubberized appearance of the Viet Cong soldier’s face as a bullet enters his head.
Without a doubt, the faces alone tell a powerful story. But curator Kurt Sundstrum finds artistry and emotion in details other people could easily overlook: the gas tanks in the foreground of a swarm of refueling helicopters; the outstretched hand of a wounded soldier; the way the light falls in the center of a bruised landscape. He wants viewers to feel the immediacy and authenticity of war the way Americans felt it for the first time during the Vietnam conflict, when photographers gained unprecedented access to the battlefield.
“Vietnam was a defining moment,” said Sundstrum, who studied thousands of photographs in putting together the exhibit. “Prior to Vietnam, we understood war from a John Wayne perspective. With Vietnam, the propaganda was stripped away.”
The exhibit, which opens Saturday and runs through Nov. 11, features 30 images by the leading photojournalists of the era, most of whom were either injured or killed in the conflict themselves. The artistry they were able to bring to such chaotic and frightening episodes is nothing short of astounding, Sundstrum said.
Several of the photographers saw religious imagery in the moments they captured on camera. British photographer Don McCullin was reminded of the descent of Jesus from the cross when he photographed a wounded Marine being carried to safety by two comrades during the Tet offensive. A piece by American photographer Art Greenspon depicts a soldier with his arms stretched heavenward as though crying out to God. The soldier, whose image later inspired the movie poster for Oliver Stone’s Platoon, was actually summoning a helicopter.
Though less than celestial, helicopters did carry powerful imagery during the war, dropping American troops into hellish jungles and disappearing into the sky. The sight and sound of their return must have been nearly spiritual, Sundstrum said.
The exhibition offers breadth as well as depth, highlighting many key moments and iconic images of the war, including Malcolm Browne’s photograph of the self-immolating monk, Eddie Adams’s photo of the execution of Viet Cong prisoner Nguyen Van Lem, and Nick Ut’s photograph of a young girl fleeing a napalm strike. A detailed timeline and a map accompany the exhibit.
Though it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of Vietnam, what the exhibit does avoid is any kind of political stance. Sundstrum and other museum staff members worked closely with local veterans groups to solicit input and feedback, and they’ve reserved one section of wall for Vietnam veterans to pin their own photos and stories. Vietnam veterans will also serve as docents on some weekends.
“We had a hard time getting them on board at the beginning,” Sundstrum said. “Once we got them to feel that they had control, that we really were listening, they started to get on board.”
But if the exhibit brings a measure of healing for some groups, Sundstrum hopes it serves as a wake-up call for others. “We’re involved in several conflicts right now, and all we hear about is the royal baby,” he said. “I hope that this starts a conversation.”
For visitors inspired to action after viewing the exhibit, there will be an area where they can write letters of support to American troops. Guests are invited to kick off the letter-writing campaign on Sunday at 3 p.m., with a showing of the documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. Through Sunday, the museum is collecting care package items to accompany the letters. Visit currier.org for information.