SOUTH VIETNAM AND VIETCONG-CONTROLLED TERRITORIES: OCT 1972 - FEB 1973 NORTH VIETNAM: DEC 1975 - FEB 1976
DOCUMENT OF EVENTS
, you went to war, the journalist: you travelled of ge ima oic her a had I boy As a you covered historic events. n found it was more taking photographs, but I soo and g tin wri h bot out d rte I sta I dreamed of covering all would-be photographers, e lik and es tur pic ing tak fun in 1970, the US a professional photographer, ame bec I n Whe . War m tna Vie the ion’ phase of hdraw. It was the ‘Vietnamizat wit to un beg y ead alr had troops e killing each other which meant the Vietnamese wer it, led cal y the as , war the le photographing. myself what would be worth whi ed ask I rs. die sol US n tha rather ered. The one thing North Vietnam had all been cov and on ati miz tna Vie , war The ed by the Communists tcong - this movement, direct Vie the was d ere cov n’t was that . South Vietnamese and US armies from the North, fighting the ody had actually e Communist photographers, nob som and nts ita mil e som m fro Apart and when in 1972 I ations were underway in Paris, oti neg ce Pea m. the hed rap photog ace is at hand’, I retary of state say that ‘pe sec US the ; ger sin Kis ry Hen heard moment. ne because i knew this was the pla rst fi the on ped jum lly litera
citizens wading down the river to avoid conflict
families gather in a safe place
As every war Is about to finish, there is a period where nothing is settled, when one authority has given up its power and the other hasn’t started taking over. As i confirmed many times later, in Beirut, in Iran and recently in Iraq, this is when you can really work. But when I went, peace was not at hand. I had to wait four and a half months.
I was in my 20s and i could afford to wait. I covered the war, and picked u assignments. When the Paris agreement was eventually signed, the Vietcong needed to show it was holding territory and suddenly foreign journalists were welcome. I was able to discover ‘the enemy’ that we’d all been dreaming about. I learned that they have schools, the have theatres, hospitals. When I came back to Paris, I used the work I’d done on the Vietcong to gain access to North Vietnam and got there just before the end of the war which was going on despite the Paris Agreement. When i started editing my work on Vietnam, two photos became irons on the civil war for me, and helped me understand why the US and its South Vietnamese ally lost the war to North Vietnam and the Vietcong. An ARVN, a soldier of the Army of South Vietnam,
“I ASKED MYSELF WHAT WOULD BE WORTH WHILE PHOTOGRAPHING. THE WAR, VIETNAMIZATION AND NORTH VIETNAM HAD ALL BEEN COVERED. THE ONE THING THAT WASN’T COVERED WAS THE VIETCONG.”
is equipped and armed by the United States with an M16 riﬂe. He is resting on a US-built car. A Vietcong guerilla on patrol in a sampan, in the Delta region of South Vietnam, carries all his belongings in a rucksack and has a Russian built Kalashnikov at his feet. The Vietcong carries a torch, a hand grenade and his pharmacy around his belt. He paddles the sampan himself. The US-backed South may have had the technology and the hardware, but their opponents had mobility and self-reliance. They could wage a war with everything they needed on their back. Goksin Sipahioglu was disturbing my work at the time, before I suggested he named his agency Sipa because he sometimes signed the pictures under his own name, forgetting the photographer. This was a heroic age: everything was up to the photographer. You worked everything out, you paid for everything, you organised everything. But before leaving for a story, Goksin would bring out his black book and give you girls’ telephone numbers in the area you were going to. That was the kind of relationship photographers had with him. The entire five months I spent in south vietnam he didn’t send me a cent. He had been selling pictures in the meantime, so there was money coming in. When i got back, I asked him why he didn’t send me some money. He said, ‘Did you eat when you needed to?’ I said yes. ‘Did you have women when you wanted to?’ my answer was the same. ‘So what did you need money for? Here it is!’ Like a tribal chief, he loved nothing more than handing the money out himself. Graduating to Gamma, a bigger and more powerful photo agency, the first thing they gave me was a
telex card for calling collect. If you wanted to get somewhere, they could give you a list of ﬂights. The would organise your shipments of film, and advance you expenses. Everything was professional. The sales were much better too. When I went to Magnum, it was like going back to Sipa. Here you buy your own plane ticket, you take your own money, you buy your own film. You do everything yourself. I’ve come full circle. But at Magnum they give you the keys to the office. There are two ways to think about photography: one is writing with light, and the other is drawing with light. The school of Henri Cartier-Bresson, they draw with light. They sketch with light. The single picture is paramount to them.
For me that was never the point. My pictures are always part of a series, an essay. Each picture should be good enough to stand on its own, but its value is as part of something larger. I used to describe myself as a photojournalist, and was very proud of it. The choice was to think of oneself as a photojournalist or an artist. It wasn’t out of humility that I called myself a photojournalist, but arrogance. I thought photojournalism was better. But these days I don’t call myself a photojournalist, because although I use the techniques of a photojournalist and get published in magazines and newspapers, I am working at things in depth and over long periods of time. My project can take five years, or seven in the case of
otojournalist of oneself as a ph ed myself mility that i call It wasn’t out of hu ought th I but arrogance. a photojournalist, days i don’t e es th better. But s wa m is al rn ou oj phot although I ournalist, because oj ot ph a lf se my call and get a photojournalist of es qu ni ch te e th use I am working s and newspapers, ne zi ga ma in d he is publ s of time. d over long period an h pt de in gs in at th H VIETNAM TERRITORIES & NORT ETCONG-CONTROLLED
23rd Jan 1973 1973 15th - 18th March 2nd July 1973 h 1974 29th Feb - 4th Marc RY 1976 OCTOBER 1972-JANUA
of my Islam project. My statements are my books. It’s more like the work of a writer than a photojournalist. Now I don’t just make stories about what’s happening. I’m making stories about my own way of seeing what’s happening. There’s a difference. I am interested in the world, sure, but also in my version of the world. The work comes together not when you shoot but when you sequence it. I go to places, take photographs, cover all aspects of the problem, not just one side or the other; not just South Vietnam but also North Vietnam, the Vietcong. I try to show my point of view about it, not just follow events. I work out what I think of the place and hope that shows in the work. I realise now that I haven’t changed much as a photographer in all this time. When Magnum recently did a book and exhibition about 1968, they found some pictures that I’d forgotten about, from New Orleans, before I’d taken up photography professionally. I looked at this large print in the exhibition and realised that today i would take exactly the same picture. I was using a 28 mm lens then, and now I use a 35 mm, but basically, if I had the same situation now, I would take the same picture. It made me proud. I know in the
West you have to invent the world every morning, but maybe this is my Eastern background. My perspective on the world has changed, but I’m still the same photographer. Thirty-five years of work and I’m doing the same thing! Photographers often think they have to change their style to renew themselves. I don’t have to, because it’s the subject that changes each time. If I renew myself, it’s not in the style. I keep it as simple as possible; I have always used the same photographic approach, the same camera, the same film, the same 35 mm rectangular format. What I’m dealing with, the problematic, the subject, this is different and therefor my response is different. this is where I renew myself. The last time I was really a photojournalist was during the revolution in Iran. I was sending my photographs to Gamma who were doing a superb job of distributing them, and they were getting published everywhere. But I thought ‘I’m a photojournalist, so what?’ I felt I wasn’t making a statement. Some of the pictures have become icons of the revolution, and I hope they will survive me, but it was basic news coverage. Now I want to put events in perspective. After the revolution
“I AM INTERESTED IN THE WORLD, SURE, BUT ALSO IN MY VERSION OF THE WORLD. THE WORK COMES TOGETHER NOT WHEN YOU SHOOT BUT WHEN YOU SEQUENCE IT. I GO TO PLACES, TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS, COVER ALL ASPECTS OF THE PROBLEM, NOT JUST ONE SIDE OR THE OTHER...”
“ WHEN I SWITCH ON, I’M IN A STATE OF GRACE. I START SEEING BLACK AND WHITE. EVERY TONE OF COLOUR I TRANSLATE INTO TONES OF GREY, BLACK AND WHITE. IT ALLOWS YOU TO WORK ON A DIFFERENT LEVEL. SINCE YOU DON’T NEED TO DEAL WITH THE COLOUR OF REALITY, YOU DEAL WITH OTHER THINGS. ”
in Iran, I wanted to show the shock waves of the revolution around the Muslim world. I started making contacts in the ex-Soviet republics of central Asia, and I almost went, but I realised emotionally I was not ready. I had invested too much in Iran. I was still dreaming about it, having nightmares. Instead I went to Mexico. It was a spiritual search, an aesthetic search. I was looking for a language, I went there 11 times over three years. There were no events to cover, the challenge for me was that nothing was happening, but I liked the place, I felt a bond with it, so I photographed it. It helped me develop the language that I used afterwards for my subsequent essays. There are really two parts, two movements, to the way I work. The first movement is the taking of photographs. That’s intuitive, but my intuition is inﬂuenced but by experience, my education, my politics, the dispute I had with my girlfriend the night
before. Then when I come back, looking at the contact sheets and workprints, I begin the second park: the edit. For the photography, seeing in black and white is natural to me. The world may be colour but black and white transcends it. When I’m at work. I switch on, I’m in a state of grace. I start seeing black and white. Every tone of colour I translate into tones of grey, black and white. It allows you to work on a different level. Since you don’t need to deal with the colour of reality, you deal with other things. When I get back, I edit my contact sheets, have a lot of 13 x 18 cm workprints laid down maybe 130 of them on the table. Then I start taking prints away. I show this selection to editors at Magnum, and if there’s a photographer nearby I ask them what they think. It will take me three to four days minimum to come to a sequence of 40 or 50 photographs that constitute the story. Which is then distributed by Magnum. The seeds
are there of a chapter of a book. Even though that will come months or years later. Making the final work, the essay I hope will be printed in book form, is the final stage of the sequencing. It needs six months. I have the prints laid out and first think in the morning, before i shower, I look at the photographs and go, ‘Oh, this one goes there, this one there’, and move things around. This is the definitive writing of the essay. I’m too old now to think that people see the same thing that I do. This is the great thing about photography.
It’s so enriching. You show the same photograph to three different people and get three completely different responses. And they are all totally different from your own. But more than anything I make sure people get my point. Which is why words are sometimes necessary, and why all my books have words. They may only be in diary form, just simple writing, but I am saying: read my pictures the way you want to - individually, collectively - that’s fine; read them the opposite of the way I intended, that’s fine too. But make sure you get my point!
Published on May 1, 2011
Abbas is one of the rare photographers who covered all three sides of the Vietnam war : the South, the North and the Vietcong controlled are...