t’s amazing what you can do with a laser printer nowadays.
In 1996 I moved to Bangkok from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I had spent five years working as a news photographer for Agence France-Presse (AFP). In Cambodia I had been able to experience some of the thrills and excitement I had read about in books by Robert Sam Anson, Neil Sheehan, Tim Page, Christopher Robbins, and in the stories of Sydney Schanberg. As young journalists many of us tried to relive the lifestyle of the Vietnam correspondents; some of us never made it back, like my friend and mentor Stig.

In Cambodia, we were able to travel with United Nations soldiers during Cambodia’s first election in 30 years, fly in Russian MI-17 helicopters sitting in wooden beach chairs amid huge vats of sloshing aviation fuel, drink warm Czech beer in dusty, baking-hot backwater villages, and sleep in rice farmer’s homes when not even one cockroach-infested guesthouse was available. When the U.N. left in 1994, we stayed on to cover the low-scale conflict between the new Cambodian government and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, who were still nestled along the Cambodian-Thai border and were intent on making life dangerous and difficult. One long story we covered was the kidnapping of three Western backpackers, which sadly ended when their Khmer Rouge captors shot them and left their bodies in a minefield, only to be scavenged by wild pigs.

Of course we also did have some fun times, and were able to explore Angkor Wat when there were no tourists anywhere thanks to persistent problems with Pol Pot’s nearby guerillas and landmines. Inevitably we found time to eat lots of local Cambodian specialties such as cobra, plates of fried sparrows, with snake wine to wash everything down. Plates of huge fried tarantulas were offered to us in Skoeun by a cute little girl who should have been in school. Wild boar, venison, and wild corn were always delicious, though.

Bangkok was a breeze after Phnom Penh, but I soon found myself itching to work on a new project, especially since a previous book project I worked on in Cambodia, Killing Fields from Twin Palms Press, immediately went out of print less than a year after its release (the BBC did a documentary on the book as well). So much for book proceeds…

From my tiny Bangkok apartment I faxed copies of a letter to Hanoi, printed on a laser printer with fancy letterhead of my own creation. I also added official-looking seals next to my signature to impress the Vietnamese communist bureaucrats. Eventually I was granted an meeting with the director of the Vietnam News Agency (VNA), a former war photographer named Pham Hoat. Over green tea we hit it off, and he liked my idea of collecting the very best images from ex-war photographers all over Vietnam, to be published together in a book and to be shown in a touring exhibition. The goal was to show what the war looked like on the other side, through their lenses. My first glimpses of the Vietnamese war photographs in the dark, musty VNA office were encouraging, and I immediately recognized how good the images were.

The next day I flew down to Saigon to meet Lam Tan Tai, the head of the Vietnam Artistic Photographer’s Association (VAPA), who I was told knew and kept in contact with all the remaining former war photographers. Mr. Tai was my best source of information, and for several years he tirelessly helped me track down as many photographers as we could find, men who were both well-known in Vietnam and others completely unknown. Some photographers only had a few negatives that survived the war; one fellow in Danang had lost everything, and cried when he saw the photos I had collected from his colleagues, knowing he would not be able to make a contribution to the book. At least we were able to include his name in the book for posterity.

Initially I had expected difficulties with the Communist authorities, as I had already experienced their mindless bureaucratic restrictions while trying to complete assignments in Saigon for AFP. This time, however, I enjoyed nothing but unhindered cooperation; some of this I attribute to the loosening of social and political controls currently taking place in Vietnam, and some of it was because I had the time to do the project at the Vietnamese pace. Since I was only 90 minutes away in Bangkok it was fairly easy for me to go back and forth.

In the end I was able to meet every Vietnamese photographer I had heard of, including a wonderful 80 year-old woman who had kept her husband’s film from the 1940s onwards. Altogether I was able to print more than 400 images taken between 1945-75. Many times I saw negatives that had never been printed before, sometimes because the film had been severely damaged and/or overexposed. Some of this film I was able to drum scan and bring back to life. Photographer Mai Nam had a wonderful shot, but the film stock had been scratched to oblivion. When I showed him the digital Chromira print I made after drum scanning his film, he had tears in his eyes. From the jungle into high tech, he said.

Finally the lion’s share of the work was done, and New York Times writer Seth Mydans wrote up a wonderful front page story on the Vietnamese photographers to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. For a week my phone, fax, and email didn’t stop, and ultimately I made contact with Lisa Lytton at National Geographic, who made the book I envisioned from the beginning.

We were also able to exhibit the photographs in New York at the International Center of Photography (ICP), as well as National Geographic headquarters in Washington, and in Chicago at the Vietnam Veteran’s Art Museum. Sadly we were not able to bring any of the Vietnamese war photographers over to the United States, as fundraising became very difficult following September 11. I'm still hoping we can bring a few of them to a future opening.

Hopefully these images will continue to be seen and shown around the world. It’s high time the Vietnamese photographers get some credit for their hard work. And it’s wonderful to include their images in that huge mosaic of imagery we call the Vietnam experience, which we collect in our mind’s eye.

I hope you enjoy another perspective from the Vietnam War!

Doug Niven
click here to open slide
show of my portfolio
click here to watch Killing Fields slide show
click here to learn more about Viet Cong photographer Lam Tan Tai
click here to read about the discovery of this amazing image