The American War
Atlanta, USA: J & L Books, Inc., 2006
90 pp., 20 x 14 cm., hardcover
Edition of 2000
When Harrell Fletcher spoke in Toronto many years ago, the thing that most struck me about his talk was the simple observation that the Vietnam War is not called the Vietnam War in Vietnam. In Vietnam, the war is known as Kháng chiến chống Mỹ (Resistance War Against America), and less formally as 'Cuộc chiến tranh Mỹ' (The American War'). This simple shift in perspective is at the heart of his work of the same name.
In 2005, the artist spent a month in the country as part of an international artists retreat, where he visited The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Profoundly affected by what he saw there, Fletcher returned several times and re-photographed every image and text description from the main museum - hand held shots at odd angles to avoid reflections.
He then used this furtive documentation to re-stage the exhibition in its entirety, in galleries across the US, such as Artpace (San Antonio, Texas) Solvent Space (Richmond, VA), the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T. (Cambridge, MA), and White Columns (New York City).
The project debuted at a time when the George W. Bush government was attempting to shape public perception about the war in Iraq by controlling media access. Journalists were embedded with military units, providing the illusion of transparency while actually engaging in a propaganda campaign. The media were kept away from civilian populations where the human toll of the war is most apparent, and their closeness with the soldiers invariably led to profiles of courage and heroism.
A decade prior, President George H.W. Bush implemented a ban on media photographs of returning dead soldiers, ostensibly to allow families of fallen soldiers to grieve in private. Critics charged that the ban was a way to disguise the cost of battle, a lesson learned from the Vietnam War. The policy was reversed by President Obama, 18 years later.
Fletcher's project discreetly touches on some of these subjects, as well as photography's role in the construction of history - as both a documentary and propagandist medium. In a June 2006 article in the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman wrote:
"In a nearly invisible way, it raises a general question about looking at photographs: about what it means to see something from someone else's point of view (Mr. Fletcher's camera angle being the operative metaphor), and also about how strangely, even alarmingly compelling war pictures can be."
The American War is available here for £9.00.
"Even though many of the images were familiar to me, seeing them all together and presented from the Vietnamese perspective was very striking. It made me realize that I didn't know much about the details of the war that had consumed the U.S for most of my early childhood. I started researching the war in an attempt to understand why it happened and what its effects were on the region and in regards to U.S policy. The museum and my re-presentations of it are only showing one perspective, there are many others. I encourage everyone to do their own research and find out more about The American War in Vietnam and all of the other American Wars that have been happening ever since, sometimes covertly and other times, as in the current situation in Iraq, very overtly, but hidden at the same time."
- Harrell Fletcher