The True Picture: An Exhibit of Vietnam War Photographs

March 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: One of the curious things about photography is that the picture does not lie, even when you want it to. And nobody wants pictures to lie as much as propagandists.

Leni Riefenstahl made her dark and demonic reputation by taking glorifying pictures of Nazis. Hers was art used for politics as never before. And yet, a Nazi is a Nazi, and the falsification of the Hitler gang– the fake superiority, the corruption of power, the brutality– came through in every polished jackboot.

So it is, in a slightly different way, with an exhibition of photographs at the International Center for Photography, called “Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War From the Other Side.” The title is misleading. These are not pictures of the Vietnam War. They are propaganda shots– pictures not from the other side, but rather from one side of the other side. We have a woman Viet Cong guerrilla posing with her rifle as a symbol of courage and duty. We have the camaraderie of the undaunted Viet Cong soldiers — youth volunteers — attending villagers — the ferocity of the fighters. Victims of American bombing. Jane Fonda– how could we do without her? Surrender of the enemy, the South Vietnamese. Capture of the enemy, us.

Compare such photographs to Eddie Adams’ street execution, or to the photo of the young girl running toward us after a napalm attack, or to a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire. Or, to make the point most harshly, My Lai. The photos americans saw of the war were of the war. The photos in this exhibit were meant to inspire a war. And yet– and here is where it gets interesting– these, too, have an independent power.

In spite of their propagandist intentions, they do show what happens in a war: The faces of the wounded. The mixture of pain and hardship. The unfathomable weariness. The madness. An especially arresting picture is of a dance troupe entertaining an artillery unit in the middle of the jungle. The thing is a setup, but unintentionally it conveys the craziness of the enterprise. Even posed, people are always people. Between disapproval of its propaganda cast and wonder at the fact that the pictures seem to rebel against it, stands the modern American observer, who– here I speak for myself– does not quite know what to make of these pictures.

The use of art for politics usually ruins art, and very few of these shots do anything for me. What one does take away is that, even in this rally-the-troops mode of art, there is always another side. And on that other side in Vietnam were photographers who, in spite of their assignments, in spite of themselves, did– as all artists do– find beauty.

See beauty here: The beauty of the makeshift medical station in the jungle, with the water gleaming and the heads covered for different reasons, and the folds of the tent, and the flow of the vines… and the faces, of course– the human faces.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.