The Digital Journalist

Photos From "The Other Side"

by Doug Niven

When Horst Faas and Tim Page's beautiful book Requiem came out I thought to myself: what a shame to have that book limited to photographers that had died. Just think of how many great Vietnamese ex-war photographers must still be alive! Of course I found the Vietnamese material in the book the most interesting, as I've been working as a photographer in SE Asia since 1992 and have always been fascinated by the Vietnam War. After having read a story written and faxed to me by Philip Jones-Griffiths entitled "From the Other Side", minus the photographs,  I was immediately interested to see what photographs from the "other" side of the war actually looked like. 

I had done a previous book called the Killing Fields (Twin Palms Press) in my free time while working as a photographer for Agence France-Presse in Phnom Penh. Feeling stifled by the demands of wire service work I decided to bail out when my contract expired and focus on a massive project of archeological proportions to find and print all the best photographs from the "other side" of the war in Vietnam. 

So for the last three years I've been  in and out of both Saigon and Hanoi 17 times from my base in Bangkok, armed at first with only a dream and some fancy homemade letters whipped up on a laser printer. Worse, I had hardly any contacts in the necessary places in Hanoi, but persistance finally paid off: after getting my foot in the door it's been wonderful journey. Sitting down and going through the stacks of catalogs containing photographs from the war, seeking out and finding the old photographers, most of whom are alive and well and love sharing their stories, and then finally printing the original negatives in a variety of darkrooms of various standards and voltage, has been the most satisfying work I've ever done. 

Thames and Hudson now want to publish the as-yet untitled book. Famed shooter Tim Page will be writing an introduction as well as helping put the package into shape and dig out further pics in Vietnam, and together it will make an impressive package, hopefully on the printing presses soon. A TV or film documentary on the Vietnamese photographers is on the agenda, too. 

The Vietnamese ex-war photographers have been wonderful, and have that same sense of photographer's camraderie that I have enjoyed in Cambodia and elsewhere. They have all spoken freely of their successes and failures and troubles and highlights, and they are all wonderful, beautiful people. Like American and other journalists on their enemy's side during the war, they think back of that time 25-30 years ago as the golden time of their lives, when friendships were strong, where every day was an adventure, and they were making an important contribution to their people. They, too, feel let down at how slow and unexciting life is nowadays, though they love seeing their grandchildren running around the house. The photographers and agencies and foundations have opened up their files to me, never trying to edit, censor, or influence my editing process. 

At the moment we've printed nearly 300 original negatives, brought to us in plastic bags, old aluminum film cans with film never even edited, and in the old standby: American ammo cases filled with roasted rice which is the Vietnamese equivalent of silica gel! 

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