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The battlefield their home, the rivers their darkroom



L
ong before the word photojournalist appeared in the West many North Vietnamese men worked exactly like that. In the early 60s and up to 1975 they covered the Vietnam war under conditions that even the most hardcore western photographers and journalists never experienced. Journalist Helle Maj has interviewed four Vietnamese men about their war memories. April 30 2015 marked 40 years since the Vietnam War ended. In their minds it still lives on.

HoChiGruppe Photojournalists with Ho Chi Minh. Mai Nam is next to him with the camera © Private


By Helle Maj, Mayday Press

The elderly woman cannot take her eyes off a black/white photo of a group of young women with spades in their hands. They are all in the process of filling a bomb crater. Her husband has already moved on to look at the some of other pictures on show in Hanoi taken by four North Vietnamese photo-journalists during the Vietnam War. When the woman sees me, she smiles and points to the young girl in the foreground.

It's me. I was 17 at that time in 1965”, says the now 67-year-old Nguyen Chi Chu while she studies photojournalist Mai Nams picture. In North Vietnam the war went by the name 'the anti-American war' and is today called the slightly more conciliatory 'American War'. In the West it was quickly dubbed the world's first
living room war.

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Nguyen Chi Chu as 17 years old in a picture taken by Mai Nam © Mayday Press


Reporters and photographers from the US, Australia, Europe and Japan got for the first (and probably last) time in history free and uncensored access to cover an American war. They jumped on board a military helicopter when they wanted an adrenaline rush and great pictures from the battlefield and flew back to Saigon when they needed to soothe their minds and bodies with booze, women and opium. The war cost many of them their lives, while others achieved stardom. The reality for their colleagues in northern Vietnam were a bit different. When Chu Chi Thanh was sent on his first mission as a photojournalist for the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) he had to ride 500 kilometers on his bicycle to reach the front. In the his backpack he had an East German Praktica camera, a few rolls of film, developer in powder form and a bag of rice. The battlefield was the North Vietnamese photo-journalists' home and the river banks, their darkroom. "I borrowed bowls from the villagers to develop my films in the night by the river. To prevent too much smoke, I used peanut oil in the oil lamp. We did not have equipment to send the images back to the editors, so I made only contact sheets”, says Chu Chi Thanh.

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Photographer Chu Chi Thanh at his home in Hanoi in April 2015 © Mayday Press


Getting the exposed film back to news agencies in Hanoi were often more dangerous than taking pictures. VNA lost 40 photographers and 120 journalists during the Vietnam War. Over the years the Americans fought in Vietnam, we in the West saw almost nothing to the images that North Vietnamese photographers took from their side of the DMZ. But the Vietnamese people did. Though it was not all kind of images from the war, they were exposed to. They got the victories. They witnessed the joy and pride. They saw cooperation between civilians and soldiers. The defeats. Dead North Vietnamese soldiers. People with anxiety painted on their faces. Burnt down villages. Those photos were not published in North Vietnam. "We took the pictures. But not many, because we knew they would never be printed. It was about winning the war against United States, so we made most pictures of resolute and happy soldiers. Look, they smile on many of my pictures", says the former photojournalist Doàn Cong Tinh. It was he who asked the soldiers to smile, he admits only a little later in the interview. The North Vietnamese photo-journalists were very aware that their images could help win the war.

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Photojournalist Doàn Cong Tinh © Mayday Press


"We told the truth with our photos. But we sometimes had to arrange the pictures to get the message across. We did not have the same working conditions as our American colleagues who could take their pictures in daylight because the Americans attacked at day. We attacked at night, so many of my pictures you can hardly see our soldiers, only trees, leaves and branches”, laughs Hua Kiem, who was both an officer and photographer during the war. Some of the most beautiful images of the war were taken by the now 84-year-old Mai Nam. The other war photographers refer to him as the artist, the one who always waited for the right light. "That's not true. I took the pictures of what happened at the moment, journalism cannot wait for the good light to appear. But there should be art in our images”, says Mai Nam, whose photographs for many years was hidden away in his home. "But it never worried me. I always knew that my work one day would be known worldwide”, he says. He was one of the few war photographers who were allowed to keep his negatives. For most of the other photographers a lot of their pictures today only exist in their mind.

_MG_3939 Photographers Mai Nam and Hua Kiem at Mai Nam's home in Hanoi © Mayday Press


"When we sent our films back to Hanoi, the editors chose the images they needed that day and threw the rest of the negatives in the trash," says Chu Chi Thanh, which fortunately for posterity sometimes could charm the archive lady to save his negatives . The North Vietnamese photo-journalists only met their Western colleagues from the other side of the front a few times. "But on the 12th day of the US bombing of Hanoi in 1972 we were at the press conference with 30 American pilots, we had captured. Western photographers were present that day”, says Chu Chi Thanh. Both he and the three other photojournalists, I interviewed, followed closely how their Western counterparts covered the war. "We subscribed to news pictures from agencies in both France, Japan, China and Russia, so we saw both American photographers' photos and images taken of other colleagues from the West. Their pictures were very beautiful, both technically and the motives as well. We learned a lot from them. But they had better equipment, better working conditions and better quality of films than we had”, says Hua Kiem.

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Pentacon Six made in GDR © Mayday Press


Doàn Cong Tihn are pleased the West published the amount of pictures from the war as we did. Photos taken by western photographers. "The photographers brought the futility of war into the picture. We from the north photographed to mobilize our people. Ultimately our images supplemented each others and led to our victory and an end to the war, "he says.

This is the first story in a series of five about the photojournalists from North Vietnam