Naked children burned by napalm running down a dirt road. An execution with a single gunshot to the temple. For many people, these Pulitzer Prize-winning photos will forever be icons of the war in Vietnam. But photojournalists weren’t the only ones clicking away in Southeast Asia — thousands of unpublished war images sit yellowing in attics and scrapbooks across America, Kodak moments captured by countless soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who served in Vietnam.
These photos won’t ever be considered for any lofty journalism award, but the stories they tell are about as intimate a portrait of that conflict as can be found. And in Haywood County, those stories are now being revealed in a photography exhibit bearing the all-too-fitting title A Thousand Words: Photographs by Vietnam Veterans.
Sponsored by the Haywood County Arts Council, the show began as a classroom project organized by Martin Tucker, an instructor at the Sawtooth Center for Visual Arts in Winston-Salem. After vets began submitting their photos, Tucker quickly realized his project had gallery potential. And his hunch has proven true in Waynesville, where the exhibit is currently being featured at the Little Gallery.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response. It’s been incredible. People just poured in on opening night [July 1]; we had over 300,” notes Kay Waldrop, director of the Haywood County Arts Council. By July 5, that number had climbed to more than 1,000 visitors, according to Waldrop.
On view are shots that entrap the fear and pain felt by soldiers in the field, as well as the more pedestrian moments that marked the time between battles, when weapons could be shouldered and cameras drawn. In one such display, naked young soldiers frolic in a water-filled bomb crater in the middle of a rice paddy. The photo’s caption, like many of the captions, is as telling as the image it describes. In it, the photographer/soldier explains how he and his buddies figured out a way to beat the tropical heat. Their plan: call in an artillery strike to their position in the paddy, wait for the bombs to fall, and watch as the water seeped into the new craters — Viola! Instant swimming pool. It’s playful at first viewing, but upon reflection, a surreal quality emerges — a bizarre mix of youthful ingenuity, reckless abandon and desperation.
Other photos depict proud young men striking the same poses seen in pictures currently coming home from Iraq — shots that show equal parts pride and machismo. But in one (a self-portrait of a grinning young man standing menacingly behind the bow gun of a swift boat), the caption added by the photo’s subject reveals something entirely different. He writes: “I don’t really like to think of myself being behind that. Coming back from Vietnam, I’ve never ever, ever, ever been able to hold a weapon or hunt.” It’s but one of many surprises the exhibit offers.
Of course, it’s all but impossible to view A Thousand Words without reflecting upon the latest U.S. war in Iraq, a conflict frequently and predictably compared to Vietnam. Fittingly, a guest book signed by viewers exposes a level of disagreement that, too, seems snipped from the torn public fabric that was the Vietnam era. What isn’t clear, however, is whether those who wrote “God Bless our troops!”, “Freedom don’t come free” and “We never learn” are referring to the war in Vietnam, or something more topical — and equally divisive.
A Thousand Words: Photographs by Vietnam Veterans shows at Haywood County Arts Council’s Little Gallery (86 North Main St., in Waynesville) through Monday, Aug. 15. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free (donations accepted). 452-0593.