The New York Public Library, Mid-Manhattan Branch
May 5, 2008
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Michael Almereyda When you were growing up in and around the war, I was just wondering how good those memories are, what your clearest memory of the war is, direct contact with the war?
An-My Lê I think they’re very vivid in the sense that I remember very specific events, whether they were the Tet offensive, whether it was mortar falling into my school half an hour before I showed up at school—a Catholic school. My great-grandmother was saved because she decided to spend the night at our house instead of going home, and her house was mortared. But at the same time, war was part of our lives, so we never really questioned it. I just accepted it and lived through it.
MA What were the direct manifestations? What was there? Did you have raids that you had to run from?
AML Yeah, there were raids that we had to run from. They were political coups, and that meant that we would come home one day and someone, my mother, was all up-in-arms, We have to go out and buy more rice and stock our cupboards! It’s because you didn’t know when the stores would be open again. It was part of our life, and we all accepted it. I think I remember at times thinking, I wish I lived in another country where we didn’t have those difficulties and upheavals.
MA You spent a lot of time in Paris growing up too.
AML Yeah. So when I was 8, my mother received a scholarship to go study in Paris. She thought it was a great opportunity, because she wanted us to experience what peace was like. My father had to stay as a guarantor; that’s the way it worked in Vietnam. So she took us to Paris—
MA —To guarantee that you wouldn’t escape the country.
AML —That we would return. So he stayed, and she went to Paris to work on her PhD. It took her five years to do it.
MA What was she studying?
AML She studied English lit…in France. (laughter) Her thesis was about feminism. Then she finished it, and I think we were the only Vietnamese family to return to Vietnam. This was 1972. I think everyone was trying to escape then.
MA What was your father’s line of work?
AML My father was an educator too. He taught American studies, and he was also an administrator in a university context. Both my parents are educators.
MA So you eventually landed in the U.S.
AML Yeah. My parents are Francophiles, even though they spoke English. When the war ended we were evacuated by the Americans. Everyone thought we should stay in the United States; because there was option of going to France, and everyone thought there would be more opportunities in the United States. And I think everyone was right. We ended up staying in the United States.
MA When you landed here did you feel dislocated and bewildered?
AML Oh, completely! I mean it was quite an adventure. I mean in the sense of movies, for a 15 year old, being chased by cops and ending up on a plane and being evacuated and ending up in different camps, shuttling from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines to Wake Island to Guam Island and then Camp Pendleton and then….You know, encountering California and McDonalds and everything, it was quite bewildering! And going to summer school for the first time….
MA Where was that?
AML This was in southern California. So it was quite a disjuncture, and I think it took me a really, really long time to feel like an American.
MA And you do feel like an American now?
AML I do feel like an American, especially after returning to Vietnam and photographing there.
(break in recording)
AML …Save so many people who were on the brink of economic disasters and who just had no idea what they were going to do with their lives. Suddenly the military sort of grabbed them and change things for them, as much as I’ve seen the military sort of crush the people’s individuality. I think that’s the whole point of the work: that it’s about all of those things.
MA It recognizes the contradictions. There’s one bit of work I really am dazzled by that you did that’s not featured in the movie. You had a movie camera with you in “29 Palms”; there’s black-and-white footage of a particular company. What’s shocking is just to recognize how young these people are. You see war movies all the time. You see actors striving to be tough and war-ravaged; but when you see people going into war, it’s shocking. I was shocked by this footage, just so see how innocent they seemed. [Innocent] is a tricky word to apply, but they seemed beautiful, the light and their attitude. It’s a shot that roves around their faces, and they’re being instructed on something. You can’t hear it; it’s without sound. So it’s just a kind of a… as a feat of observation, it’s really beautiful. The attitudes they have, the wind is rustling through their hair and they’re backlit. It’s not glamorous, but it’s beautiful. I look forward to seeing it again; I just saw it once. What are you doing with that? Is that going to be shown in the gallery at some point, or…. I know you’ve done other film work. Can you talk about your other film work?
AML Yeah. Well, you encouraged me to make films, and that’s how I started. Originally I wanted to do film because of the sound; I felt that the pictures could not reproduce the sounds and some of the dialogues that I heard that were so amazing.
MA I didn’t realize that.
AML Yeah, yeah. So I started doing that. Then it turned out, looking at the entire footage, that this was the ideal portraits I had been looking for. I think that’s what the film is. I feel it’s beginner’s luck. So I would like to do more, but I’m not sure what.
MA And then the video piece that was just shown, there are people returning and being embraced by their families. So you were shooting something there, but you haven’t organized that yet?
AML Yeah, I haven’t organized it yet; but you know, I’m a photographer mainly.
MA Well, I look forward to seeing that edited. Part of my homework was to actually read this book that I had been looking at the pictures of for so long. There’s a very good essay by Richard Woodward—I think that’s his name. He goes to great lengths, and maybe overreaches a bit, to draw historical references to what you’ve done and what the history of landscape photography [is] and measuring the pictures in terms of not just human time, but geographic time [or] geological time and talking about the landscape. I’m wondering how much of that, how much of Timothy O’Sullivan, you actually absorbed and thought about as you were taking pictures; or is that something more-or-less overlaid?
AML Well no, I certainly love Timothy O’Sullivan’s work, [Roger] Fenton, all of the 19th-century photographers. I consider myself a landscape photographer, working with a large format camera, because I love the way it describes the space, the details, the air between things. So when it came to working with a particular subject of war or the re-enactors, I had to consider my tool. I worked with a medium-format camera first; it just did not describe space the way I wanted to do it. I’m not necessarily just interested in people fighting and holding guns; I’m interested in people fighting and holding guns in the landscape. So I felt that the large-format camera was necessary. So I just continue with that tool and try to make it work. In that sense, I’m sort of a living 19th-century photographer. I think it’s also about not describing the action, but describing something before it happens or after it happens. So there’s no reason why you couldn’t do that with a view camera.
MA I’m haunted a bit by—I think it was Robert Capa, and someone here will know this quote better than I do—he was taking pictures in the Second World War or Spanish Civil War and someone said, If your pictures aren’t good enough, it’s because you aren’t close enough. There’s almost an inverted aesthetic now or sensibility or even a moral ethic, but it’s almost too easy to have the overwrought, immediate…. It’s become a cliché, a certain kind of journalism, to have the closer shot. By getting farther back you almost can have more perspectives, more of an understanding, or at least more of an understanding of contradictory things going on. But do you think about how far back you have to get?
AML I actually think, and I tell my students all the time—I teach photography—how far can you move back and still express the original idea you have. Because I think by doing that, you actually have to deal with more things. You can actually make a more complicated picture. So you know, keep your original idea, but how far can you move back and still describe that?
MA But there’s this sense too of the landscape being very vulnerable, that it’s being invaded. It’s vulnerable, but it’s tougher than the humans who are crawling around. Have you been thinking much about…. Because the switch is that it’s not war anymore, I’m assuming things that people here don’t know. Maybe you can just talk about how you got to Antarctica and what the mission became as you found your way there.
AML This new work is about the ocean and military power. So I went on a lot of aircraft carriers and destroyers. I went on all platforms off the coast of Iraq that the Navy was patrolling. Then I learned about non-combatant work that the military does in Antarctica and also in Greenland. So I thought, it would be interesting as a counterpoint to look at that. I went there and photographed military operations that the Navy and Air Force operations do in support of science. I was really glad I did. I think it really shows…. I think this is a great counterpoint in terms of the landscape, because it prevails no matter what happens. If there’s a war, it kind of renews itself and kind of revives itself. Here it’s about people trying to preserve the landscape, so it was very compelling and poignant for me. I think the entire stay was memorable. It’s an experience that I don’t think I’ve every encountered, and most people haven’t because the landscape is so incredibly pristine. It’s so difficult to get there and so few people get to go there, so you feel it’s a privilege to witness the whole landscape. I think if anyone got to witness it, they’d be so much more careful about how they use the resources and how they take care of their waste. I switched to color for a very small practical reason, but I think it turned out to be the right thing, and it’s bigger than the original reason. I switched to color because describing the metallic grey of the ship and how it’s different from, and cold compared to, perhaps the metallic grey… or the grey of the ocean or some other things that was more organic. That was my original reason for switching.
MA It was the greys.
AML And then the more I got into the work I realized, for example, the “29 Palms” work is in black-and-white. Not that you equate black-and-white with the past, but I think there’s something kind of allegorical about that work, about history kind of repeating itself—Vietnam and making the same mistake with Iraq. The new work is just about current and contemporary issues. So you know, color’s okay.
MA What are you planning next?
AML Well, I just have two more trips to finish up. Then I’ll be in real depression, not knowing what to do next (laughter). I’m going to Greenland, because the Air Force guys that I met in Antarctica fly up there for the NSF. Then there’s a big exercise in Hawaii that 17 nations with ships and the whole thing.
MA And fireworks?
AML And fireworks. But they actually I talked to them today, they won’t let me see that.
MA Because why?
AML Safety reasons, they say.
Audience Member 1: Given your ambivalence of your idea of the military, do you resist being asked what the message of your work is?
AML What the message is? I don’t resist it, but I get questions. I mean, I’m fascinated by the guild, the whole organization…how could you not? But at the same time I lived through the war, and I know what it’s capable of doing. I think what I resist is that often people ask me, Are you fetishizing the military? I think it’s that they don’t look at the entire, complete set of pictures and how they work with one another. I think it’s easier to just see it as some kind of fetishization. I forget it’s hard for someone to accept that you can actually be fascinated by that, but also have a complicated view of what war can do.
Audience Member 2 (Jack, An-My’s son): What is it about?
AML What is it about? It’s about my trying to make sense of the complicated life I’ve had.
AML I have a question for Michael! I feel like the military, the soldiers and marines, are kind of like actors, because they train. For years and years they train. They train to enact military power. Suddenly they’re call unto action, and they have to perform. So I try to photograph the training and sometimes the performance. You do the same thing! So I was wondering what it is that you look for?
MA That’s a fascinating analogy, but I don’t think it holds. I think it’s really wacky.
MA It’s really fascinating you’d mention that. I think part of the craziness of war—I haven’t been in the military, I’ve read some books and seen some movies—I get a sense that part of the nature of the training is to dehumanize people [and] to convince them it’s okay to kill another human being. [It’s] required not only for your survival, but it’s morally imperative. From what I understand there’s a kind of brainwashing and a kind of regimented insanity. That has nothing to do with…. The movie business is insane in a different way. To really cross that line and to feel it’s good and necessary to kill other people. Especially because not everyone is equally equipped to handle that idea. So to follow through with your analogy, there are some bad actors in the military, some people who can’t—
AML—who can’t follow through.
MA —Who can’t hold up the pose. But I don’t know, has anyone read the new Denis Johnson book Tree of Smoke? It’s almost an Apocalypse Nowtype of book; it has ghosts of that movie in it. It’s very intense. It made me think of your pictures in fact. But I just wouldn’t begin to imagine that as being true. From what I can tell, real war is just so brutal and so violent. Movies are about pretend; the more you get into it the more fantastic it gets. I think it war it’s the opposite.
AML But do you look for authenticity in performance?
MA Sure, I think most people do, but everyone would disagree about what’s authentic; it’s like defining truth. Everyone’s got a different notion of that. I was kind of mystified—I don’t know who was responsible, but—in the Murray Guy [Gallery] announcement for your show, they quote a Don Delillo book which has to do with another Vietnam survivor saying, Landscape is truth. I don’t really know what that is, or why it was applied to your pictures. We fall into these traps of rhetoric when we’re talking about what we do. Because what do: if it’s any good, it’s innately mysterious. It’s got to be. It has to be. We try to get closer to the mystery, but the words are different than pictures. I’m trying to get back to your point: authenticity. Authenticity, that’s part of the mystery of your pictures. You have layers of artifice, yet you go to great lengths—you’ve traveled far, you go to extraordinary places under extraordinary conditions to get people doing exercises or preparing for something or acting ready. But they’re not necessarily fighting. You’re not actually showing battles. So there are layers, and it’s interesting that you would ask me that question. From my experience, it’s a different kind of photography. I think our friend Susan [Kismaric, curator] had a great show at MoMA recently with a photographer named Joanne Verburg who hasn’t shown much in New York that I know of. One of her great virtues is that she’s the kind of photographer who gets out of bed and photographs her husband and photographs her breakfast plate and looks out the window and takes a picture. Have you ever had a period like that where you photograph directly what’s at hand? Or have you always had to get on a plane to take a picture?
AML I’ve tried. I think after Jack was born. He was born in February and by the time it was summer I realized I had not made a large-format picture of him and maybe not even a snapshot. So my assignment was to wake up everyday and make one picture of him for the whole month of August.
MA How’d it go?
AML It was great, but my intention was to keep it up every year. And then I could follow.