“I just, I wish I could show you I just got chills.”
From nearly 40 yards away Tom Mitchell is drawn in by one photograph in the exhibit “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath.” Out of the nearly 500 images this particular one transports him right back to his time in Vietnam.
“The helicopters, it’s one of those I think any Vietnam Vet will talk about was the helicopters. I was so near the coast and so it was like think of Southwest Freeway 59 with helicopters, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
The picture is by AP photographer Horst Faas and is one of more than a million photos reviewed over the course of ten years by the exhibition curators. Each photo was carefully selected and organized into 29 sections of wars’ progression as opposed to by the wars themselves. So it moves from topics like “Aftermath: Exhaustion and Shell Shock” to “Civilians” and from “Refugees to Children,” a section which brought back some fairly unpleasant memories for Mitchell.
“One of the other images that’s implanted in my brain is an area by the river that there was an Army area, Air Force, Marines, Navy and they all dumped their trash there and in the mornings you would see tiny babies, one year, two years old clawing through the trash to find food and that shook me up about as much as anything.”
Some sections show the lighter side of war like the one titled “Leisure Time” and “Daily Routine.” There are images of soldiers being entertained by comedian Stephen Colbert, Elvis Presley and a more intimate shot with a soldier on a cot next to a wall of pinups. Happy memories surface for Mitchell as he scans this section.
“My only Christmas there with some friends and we got pretty loaded and went out and decided we were gonna sing Christmas carols to the VC, the Vietcong. So we went out on a rice paddy, started singing.”
But he was quickly sobered by the following sections titled “Executions,” “Memorials” and “Remembrance.” He stops by Hubert van Es’ “Evacuation of Saigon” taken April 29th 1975.
“It makes you kind of sick in a way here we ended up just bailing. 58,000 men and women died in Vietnam and it makes you wonder what for?”
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath from Museum of Fine
The MFAH presents an unprecedented exhibition exploring the experience of war through the eyes of photographers. Images recorded by more than 280 photographers, from 28 nations, span 165 years and 6 continents, from the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s to present-day conflicts. Iconic photographs as well as unknown images are featured, taken by military photographers, commercial photographers (portrait and photojournalist), amateurs, and artists.
The exhibition examines the relationship between war and photography, exploring the types of photographs created during wartime, as well as by whom and for whom. Rather than being organized chronologically, or as a survey of “greatest hits,” the images are arranged to show the progression of war: from the acts that instigate armed conflict to “the fight,” to victory and defeat, and photos that memorialize a war, its combatants, and its victims. Portraits of servicemen, military and political leaders, and civilians are a consistent presence.