Black smoke rises into the sky. Clumps of dirt and shattered debris hang in the air. A deep and narrow trench snakes along the scorched earth, with men in gray uniforms flowing through it. Peeking out of the trench, the soldiers aim and fire muskets as reinforcements rush headlong into the gash. Close behind them a crew follows with cameras, gaffing tape, and microphones. Under overcast skies, they are filming a dramatization of the 1862 Battle of Corinth. I’m looking at the photograph of this reenactment by the American photographer An-My Lê.
In 2015, the director Gary Ross invited Lê to Louisiana to visit the set of Free State of Jones, his period film about Newton Knight, the Mississippi farmer who led a guerrilla army of white deserters and escaped slaves against the Confederacy during the American Civil War. In her image entitled Film Set (“Free State of Jones”), Battle of Corinth (2015), she captures the filming of a decisive scene early in the movie when Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey, tries to desert the fighting with his nephew. You almost don’t notice him in the midst of all the staged chaos, down in the trench, running away from the guns and toward the cameras, his face out of focus. Another image, Special Effects Technician (2015), depicts a man standing in mud-splattered jeans, a detonation box in his hands, looking out across the battlefield where the crew and actors mill about during a rainy lull in shooting. Lê would eventually follow Ross’s team into the dense cypress swamps of Chicot State Park, which serves as a setting for Knight’s “free state.” In Firing Lesson (2015), an actor playing an enslaved woman points a Remington at an unseen enemy, through a sunlit gap in the trees.
As equipment for life and art, An-My Lê’s exemplary work suggested to me that one way forward might be back—into the tangles of memory and history, onto the contested terrain of the past.
I recall the first time I saw this series, back in November 2017. It seemed to me to mark a fated convergence. Like Ross in his film, Lê has charted the psychogeography of American warfare, bringing a landscape artist’s sensibility to sites of violent conflict. In another life, she confessed in an interview, she would have liked to be a combat photographer. In this one, she gravitated toward the next closest thing—civil reenactments of the Vietnam War; military simulations of the battlefront in Iraq—making images in which history is vividly suggested by performance and the land, and politics tugs viewers beyond the frame. Throughout, she has exhibited a flair for staging combat, though the stakes of the drama can seem disguised by her work’s stark, near-documentary finish. War is both ever-present and absent in her photographs, as it is on the set of Free State of Jones.
Before me now is On Contested Terrain (2020), a handsome and thoughtfully curated volume, published on the occasion of the first comprehensive survey of Lê’s work at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. The book includes selections from all of her major series to date: Viêt Nam (1994–1998), in which Lê explores the memory landscapes of her country of birth; Small Wars (1999–2002), about Vietnam War reenactments in Virginia and North Carolina; 29 Palms (2003–2004), a study of U.S. Marines performing war exercises in the California desert; and Events Ashore (2005–2014), a nearly ten-year project depicting noncombatant activities of the U.S. military around the world. It also includes a major selection from her ongoing series, Silent General (2015– ), a travel journal, which Lê describes as “a photographic road trip” through the United States.
The book allows me to reflect on the development of Lê’s work, which I’ve spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about over the years. Though we operate in different mediums, her photographs have been central to my journey as a poet, compelling me to reckon with my own thoughts and feelings toward war and conflict, dislocation and exile—and above all toward our shared experience of leaving Vietnam as refugees and growing up in the United States. As equipment for life and art, her exemplary work suggests to me that one way forward might be back—into the tangles of memory and history, onto the contested terrain of the past.
The subject of war is extremely personal for Lê. Born in Saigon in 1960, she grew up amid escalating violence, as the conflict between North and South Vietnamese forces was intensified by American intervention. She spent the first few years of her life in the city of Hue, about sixty miles from the dividing line between North and South, where her father ran the Pedagogical University. Though still just a child, she recalls nightly mortar attacks and a general sense of social unrest. After the bloody 1968 Tet offensive, Lê and her two brothers followed their mother, who had a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne, to Paris, and temporarily out of harm’s way. They returned after the United States withdrawal in 1973, the family reunited, only to flee the country two years later. As South Vietnam fell in 1975, Lê left Saigon with her father; her mother followed months later, one of the last to be airlifted by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. embassy.
Looking at the spellbinding pictures in Small Wars, I want to finally belong to their uncanny American landscapes, but the shimmering incongruities of the images tremor with estrangement still.
Lê came to photography by accident. In 1985, while working toward a master’s degree in biology at Stanford, she enrolled in a course with the architecture photographer Laura Volkerding, who spotted and encouraged her talent. At a loose end after graduating, she found herself back in France, where she had been as a young girl. On Volkerding’s recommendation, she took a job photographing the studios of the Compagnons du Devoir et du Tour de France, a guild founded in the Middle Ages; these were to be used as illustrations for a book. The black-and-white images from this period (1986–1992), which are included in the retrospective, cast a light on Lê’s accidental apprenticeship, as she learns to wield a large-format camera, taking pictures of intricate stone carvings and guild members at work. In 1993, Lê completed an MFA in photography at Yale and the following year journeyed back to Vietnam for the first time since 1975.
Returning to her homeland was an illuminating experience for Lê, though perhaps not in the way she expected. At first, she was confronted with an irrecoverable loss of identity and belonging, as if nothing of her past lived on. But in time she came to see how the past, even if she could not recall it, still manifested itself as a palimpsest of traces in the land. “I felt that I didn’t recognize anything in Vietnam,” she says in a dialogue with novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen included in the book. “It didn’t make sense to me at all. Whatever it is I was looking for, it was in the landscape.”
The first photograph Lê made in Vietnam, Untitled, Mekong Delta (1994), shows a young family of six standing together at a distance, framed in front by a flock of white geese and a windswept grove of banana trees. The image struck me as perfectly “natural” the first time I came across it, reminding me of so many family photos of Vietnamese relatives with their rigid bearing and proud, unsmiling faces. But apparently, Lê posed—or had tried to pose—her subjects. In this and other Vietnam photos, the real served her as a staging ground for the imagined and the half-remembered.
Vietnam in Lê’s memoryscapes looked nothing like what I saw on television, news photos, or even in my family photo albums—that was their unexpected gift. They are eerily beautiful agrarian landscapes, full of mist and fog, tangled vegetation, cultivated fields, ruins, and lost memories. Looking at the series now, I’m struck by how many children and young people show up, visual evidence perhaps of the country’s relatively young population (about two-thirds were born after 1975), and also an echo of Lê’s early life there: a young girl carefully picking herbs in the flourishing family garden beside a house in Untitled, Mekong Delta (1995), a child with a group of adults on a city sidewalk all craning their necks up at a solar eclipse in Untitled, Ho Chi Minh City (1995).
What shocked me most about the photos was their apparent serenity. It felt like I was seeing things that weren’t there. In Untitled, Hanoi (1995), a group of boys play soccer in a courtyard, one of whom looks like he is missing a leg, another an arm. In Untitled, Ho Chi Minh City (1998), the blurred shapes of fast kites in the sky above a field become squadrons of phantom jets. And in Untitled, Nam Ha (1994), a portrait of a young girl wearing a pith helmet, I noticed the dark blood stain on her light pajamas. These afterimages were a byproduct of my watching too many Vietnam War movies. Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July—I’ve seen them all.
She Shoots Us
If Lê travelled to Vietnam to reconcile memories of her war-torn childhood, she explored the conflict’s afterlife in America in her next project, Small Wars (1999–2002). For that, she spent four years photographing Vietnam War reenactments in Virginia and North Carolina, where detachments of men gather in the woods every summer to reenact the distant conflict with seriousness, carefulness, and zeal. (American readers are more likely to be familiar with the armies of blue and gray Civil War reenactors refighting old battles in green fields just out of view of cemeteries and gas stations.) After making contact with a group based in Virginia, Lê gained an invitation to her first “event”—in reenactment speak—in the summer of 1999, on the condition that she participate in the scenarios. She played the sniper girl, the lone guerrilla left over in a booby-trapped village, the captured prisoner, and the native turncoat. As a Vietnamese woman, she “added to the authenticity of the event,” as Lê told Hilton Als in a 2005 interview. As for the Southern men, a few had been in the military but rarely in combat; some had fathers and brothers who were Vietnam veterans. As Lê reflects: “It seemed that many of them had complicated personal issues they were trying to resolve, but then I was also trying to resolve mine. In a way, we were all artists trying to make sense of our own personal baggage.”
Lê shoots all her pictures with a large-format view camera mounted on a tripod, a cumbersome piece of equipment that makes it seem like the photographer is stepping out of the nineteenth century. She usually uses a wooden Deardorff, which takes a good amount of time to adjust the focus and exposure, ruling out a spontaneous approach. On the other hand, the setup leads “to a way of working that is more introspective,” as her fellow photographer Mitch Epstein has noted, and it gives Lê exceptional control over the image, a certain clarity and descriptive sharpness. The view camera brings a meditative speed and scale to the picture-making in Small Wars, allowing for a style that is antithetical to the largely combat-centered, spectacle-driven, and soldier-focused news images produced by war photographers in Vietnam. Shooting from a slightly elevated position, pulling back as far as possible from the scene to pick up context, Lê developed her hallmark shot.
Though the photos in the series have titles like Rescue, Ambush, Sniper, and Special Operations Forces, Lê seldom centers the action, preferring to situate events within a broader landscape of a second growth forest or grassy habitat. It’s the finely etched drawing of trees and tall grass, the shape of a smoke cloud, and the optical tricks of camouflage that build up to a quiet, slow-burning surrealism, as frames of reference begin to get crossed, and the vantage remains ambiguous. In the Hollywood films I saw and war novels I read, the landscape of Vietnam and its climate was always ultimately seen as treacherous and alien, even if its natural beauty was momentarily glimpsed. In the military strategic sense, it was the terrain where the enemy hid and that they used to their advantage—which is what led to the use of the herbicide Agent Orange. In restaging those exotic battles on American soil, Lê contests the significance of the landscape, making us see the elsewhere lurking here.
It is not an overstatement to say that I have a difficult time imagining how I would have become a poet, what poems I would have written, had it not been for Lê’s photographs.
There’s a photograph in that series, Sniper I (1999), where Lê appears in the role of a lone Viet Cong hiding in the grass, waiting to ambush a small troop of American soldiers. In the left foreground, we see her, rifle raised instead of her camera, peering through the crosshairs, her line-of-sight level with the horizon and aimed in the direction of enemies caught seemingly unawares. With this image, Lê makes an important move: entering into a reenactment of a history she was part of, exposing herself to the extraordinarily fraught dynamics of the private and public histories—notions of the enemy and the other, racialized and gendered role-playing, frontier myths of regeneration through violence—at play all along. “The reenactments are a complete male fantasy of what war could be like and about the myth of Vietnam and the Vietnamese woman,” she told Emily Spicer in a recent interview. “But I think those guys were there because of a missed opportunity—some of them had fathers who had been in the military—and I think I understand that.”
Watching Lê stage herself as the enemy before these white men felt terribly unnerving. This photo hit home in other ways too. I can’t speak to her experience as a Vietnamese woman, but I’m sympathetic to an artist who attempts to look at something from all sides, and I’m all too familiar with being cast into the role of the perpetual foreigner. Looking at the spellbinding pictures in Small Wars, I want to finally belong to their uncanny American landscapes, but the shimmering incongruities of the images tremor with estrangement still.
I was born in Vietnam in 1980. My parents came from educated, middle-class families from the central region; both grew up and went to high school in the coastal city of Da Nang. Once upon a time, my mother was a teacher in Qui Nhon, and my father was an officer in the South Vietnamese Navy, and they had a big, festive wedding during the war. By the time I was born, my parents had already lost their country, their first child, and many years—my father to four years in reeducation camp, my mother to endless grief. On Christmas in 1981, we escaped Vietnam by sea on a small fishing vessel my father piloted. I say “we,” but I have no memories of the escape, the ten days at sea, or of the months waiting in refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines. All I have are family photos of me as a toddler in Saigon, a small identification image taken after our arrival on Bidong Island, and some pictures of us in a refugee camp, wearing new clothes for our new life in America. I can’t pretend or fabricate an immediacy, an unmediated relation, to these events, memories, and histories.
An-My Lê’s family background and upbringing differ quite a bit from mine—for one thing, she is two decades my elder—and yet on first encountering her photographs, I felt a sense of kinship, or wanted to claim one. It had something to do with the accidents of history and geography that shape her work, and her conscious choice to see the world as an exile. Lê’s photographs showed me how I might embrace distance and context as aesthetic values. She gave me permission to write about a set of subjects—the war’s legacy, above all—that seemed exhausted and covered. It is not an overstatement to say that I have a difficult time imagining how I would have become a poet, what poems I would have written, had it not been for Lê’s photographs.
In fact, some of my early poems were ekphrastic, inspired by Small Wars. Something told me I should write from the imagined point of view of one of the photographed reenactors; the mask or persona would be my camouflage. In my 2015 poem, “A Brief History of Reenactment,” I drop the photographer, from the first line, right into the middle of the action:
On Day 1, the photographer walks into camp
and immediately starts shooting. She shoots us
at breakfast eating our C-rations, in our hammocks
reading Stars & Stripes. She shoots us in her sleep.
The tension escalates, and very quickly the photographer is no longer “An-My Lê,” and perhaps never was, but a cipher for unruly desires taking new form and shape, given a voice on the page. The poem is not based on any single photograph; rather, on a kind of inspired composite and remix of images. Now that I have some distance from it and the self I was when I wrote it, I think my personal breakthrough was to let the lyrical reenactment run its course. In the poem, history unfolds in the present tense. This must have been something I picked up from Lê’s photographs as well.
In September 2001, Lê was living in New York and teaching photography at Bard College when the attacks on the Pentagon and Twin Towers brought war back once more. In the wake of the U.S.-led invasion, she applied to travel to Iraq as a member of the press corps and was put on the waitlist. In the event, she found her subject closer to home. “When I saw photographs of the marines training in the high desert near Joshua Tree National Park, I got impatient,” she told the critic Sara Cristoph. “I decided to just go to California.”
In the ensuing series, 29 Palms, Lê photographed the marines as they acted out the theater of conflict in fabricated villages set up in the California desert. Unlike the civilian reenactors, the marines did not expect her to join in the war games. In response, she seems to have retreated further from the action; in some of the images, the camera is positioned so far back and up from the depicted scene that the human presences, if we even detect them, are tiny figures in a vast and formidable landscape.
Lê’s calibrated use of distance and scale gives context to the human will to power, to control landscape, to fight an adversary on foreign territory. Mechanized Assault (2003–2004) depicts tanks and jeeps moving in attack formation across the expanse of a desert valley beneath commanding mountains that seem to render the tanks toy-like. The valley floor is raked with magnificent light, the tumultuous mountain ridges swept with shadows—yet we cannot lose sight of the brute fact of those ponderous M1 Abrams tanks. Of her days photographing in Joshua Tree, Lê recalled to Cristoph one night when the whole sky lit up for twenty minutes of jets dropping bombs, howitzers firing, and tracers in the air:
You could feel the tremors in your heart. It was a rush of life power, but at the same time, it was devastating. The kind of destruction that this exercise entails, a destruction that is all our own doing. I was really torn between how to feel, and all the while, trying to be calm and think about the pictures!
When photographing the marines, Lê struck up a friendship with Colonel Thomas Greenwood—one of her rare named subjects—who invited her to travel aboard the USS Peleliu, then anchored off the coast of California and preparing for deployment in the Arabian Gulf to support the war effort. Events Ashore (2005–2014), her next series, began on this ocean journey, as Lê assembled a kaleidoscopic visual narrative of the sprawling daily movement of ships, troops, operations, and policies of the U.S. Navy.
Visiting different battleships and mission sites in over twenty countries in nine years, Lê photographed flight operations and daily tasks aboard aircraft carriers, humanitarian relief missions in Haiti, training camps in Ghana and Indonesia, naval war exercises in the Pacific, diplomatic missions in Vietnam, and scientific missions in the Arctic and Antarctic—to list some of the dizzying coordinates and contact zones of the U.S. Navy. Working in color for the first time, she made large and vivid studies of landscapes and seascapes, often picturing the ocean at different times of the day, at different latitudes, in different moods, now metallic, now blue, now dissolved with the sky. The horizon line becomes a central feature, establishing a planetary scale and frame of reference. The superabundant visual detail and information described in each large color photo can seem like a test, meant to overwhelm the viewer. In locating terror and beauty aboard nuclear-class aircraft carriers and the fighter jets they launched, the images in Events Ashore can strike an uneasy alliance between the military and aesthetic sublime.
Part of Lê’s visual strategy is to acknowledge the beauty that might exist in these landscapes of power and conflict.
In its scale and scope, the series recalls something both of Edward Burtynsky picturing climate disasters and the Dusseldorf school photographer Andreas Gursky making giant panoramas of the global supply chain. In their 2009 essay “The Big Picture: On the Politics of Contemporary Photography,” visual theorists Imre Szeman and Maria Whiteman observe that such outsize works command our attention in large part because “we see in them the physical evidence and substance of our era.” Taking Burtynsky and Gursky’s photographs as exemplars, they argue that “these big pictures are attempts to map the big picture, to render visible those zones where power moves and possibilities are both generated and shut down.” This can be taken as a comment on Lê’s big pictures of the U.S. Navy, which provide us with conceptual maps of the tentacles of America’s empire, though they do so with an earthbound lyricism that is all her own.
Part of Lê’s visual strategy is to acknowledge the beauty that might exist in these landscapes of power and conflict. They keep us immersed, I think, so that we might also in time come to see the terror they contain. Consider Manning the Rail, USS Tortuga, Java Sea (2010), which pictures a seascape from high aboard a landing ship. We are on a precipice looking down, and before us an innumerable array of sea vessels spreads far out on the horizon line between calm waters and sky the same shade of cerulean blue; sailors and marines in alternating white and khaki uniforms stand tall on the observation deck, their backs to us, also gazing out onto the water. Many of the ships depicted are oil tankers, with some fishing boats in their midst and also what looks like a small cruise ship nosing in from the left frame, though the two most visible and close are a pair of tugboats, one keeping port, another headed starboard. In the far distance appear the whisper of a coast and a faint skyline.
The force of this image comes from its manipulation of scale. While the oil tankers can only be dimly glimpsed on the horizon, the military servicemen and ship superstructure are magnified on deck so that we might confront them—to reframe our comprehension of ecological peril and the course of American empire, to cognitively map the routes and roots of power, to produce different landscapes from another vantage. A young sailor, the forward lookout, returns the camera’s gaze.
The American Scene
Silent General represents then a homecoming of sorts for Lê, as well as a rediscovery of and reckoning with her adopted country. The series was sparked by a shocking act of racial terror. On June 17, 2015, the white supremacist Dylann Roof entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine black parishioners during a Bible study. Over the following months and years, Lê traveled across the United States, visiting sites of violence and resistance, hope and fear—reckoning with the conflict unfolding at home. The sense of reenactment that pervades this new work feels involuntary, ambient, unconscious, and threatening. It casts Lê’s earlier images in a strange new light. Now when I look at the reenactments and military exercises, I can’t help but see them grimly overlaid onto images of armed civilian men, self-appointed militia, patrolling the streets of American cities in tactical gear, guns whipped across their chests, emblems blazing.
In Lê’s silent American scenes, the work of mourning is ongoing—as is the work of cultivation and recreation, protest and celebration.
Silent General is currently divided into eight fragments or photo essays, a structure that pays homage to Whitman’s 1882 essay “Specimen Days,” and the series title is a reference to a passage in it about Ulysses S. Grant—Lê’s coded way of letting us know where she stands politically. “Incongruous and full of skips and jumps” is how Whitman described his diary jottings, Civil War memoranda, and nature notes of two decades; this could just as well describe Lê’s poetic way of sequencing her American landscapes. Looking at this revelatory new series, I am struck by how much more fragmentary, wayward, and spontaneous the photographs are—even as they confront politics directly. Some of the sections seem to cohere around a central place or subject, such as New Orleans or the Rio Grande, while others include images from disparate places that abut and rub against each other: a Lutheran church in Montana next to a drainage pump station in New Orleans, an indoor shot of an art restoration studio next to high school students enjoying an outdoor Fourth of July picnic, a cemetery in Mexico by a bridge at the Texas-Mexico border—all these insist upon a set of relations that must be imagined and seen, as your eyes move from one place to another.
Appropriately enough, a central theme of the series is the legacy of the Civil War. In General Robert E. Lee Monument, New Orleans (2016), the statue appears floating above the city almost like an afterthought. He stands high atop a marble column in his overcoat and hat and boots, arms knitted across his chest, the sunlit street below him lined with parked cars, the welcome shade of trees, and a few people out on what looks like an ordinary day in New Orleans. The following image shows the General P.G.T. Beauregard monument in the same city; this time, a crowd of his descendants protest the statue’s scheduled removal while a cavalcade of news reporters looks on. When we last see the monuments, their faces clear as portraits, they are in a cramped storage space under the protection of the Department of Homeland Security. It is a disquieting temporal jump and optical ellipsis, as we belatedly realize that the statues were removed from their public sites.
I want to try, if I can, to rescue a more capacious understanding of the book’s title, reading it as an organizing metaphor for a quality of attention, a description of things as they are—rather than a political stance. In “Specimen Days,” Whitman pays special attention to the silence he finds in the young soldiers who have witnessed much but say little, and which he experiences under the starry skies after a long day visiting with the army of the sick and wounded. He reserves a quiet kind of authority and presence for this silence, which is the silence of mourning. I believe I can detect a similar quality in the profound quietness of Lê’s American landscapes, a melancholic sense of places missing people, pictures missing subjects.
Whitman, we should remember, was also trying to write amid the experience of mass death in the nation. In addition to composing letters for soldiers, listening to their stories, or just sitting by their side, sometimes for hours, he often “gave . . . each one some little gift, such as oranges, apples, sweet crackers, figs, &c.” I think of those little acts of tenderness when I look upon the modest things photographed by Lê: a citrus tree or asparagus harvested by migrant workers or cherry blossoms above high school students protesting gun violence. In Lê’s silent American scenes, the work of mourning is ongoing—as is the work of cultivation and recreation, protest and celebration.
The Lesson of a Tree
The longer I look at An-My Lê’s photographs, the more I end up attending to the trees. I love them: the geometry of their leaves, their shadow lines, the way they make cutouts of the air; how light and shadow play in, upon, and through them; how they root me in the places where they grow, back in reality. There is one street tree that I have grown particularly fond of from Sunday Mass, November 6, New Orleans (2016). As the foreground object, its long, leafed-out branches frame this New Orleans street scene: two men are having a solicitous talk on the corner while others are crossing the street, coming and going. It being a Sunday, construction work on the street in front of the church has halted; the sun is shining, the street awash in shadow. There is an intense, heightened attention on the tree, allowing it to help organize the other elements or parts of the picture. Thriving in an unlikely place and under much environmental stress, this street tree, I think, represents resilience and life-saving and life-giving force.
I think back now to the first photograph of An-My Lê’s that I ever saw hanging in a gallery. It was Rescue, from Small Wars. Four soldiers surround and secure a recreated crash site where an actual Vietnam-era attack airplane stands, its unbroken windshield slid partially open, the pilot slumped over the side. What I found so arresting and touching in ways that were difficult for me to articulate at the time were the pine trees framing the scene—their black boughs, the fine needles etched against the white haze of the smoke. I could almost smell the scent of pine mixed with the smoke of the grenade, touch the soft, fine needles and feel them spring back into place, hear the crackle of dry twigs and soft sifting of sand beneath the weight of a body. I knew similar stands of pine from boyhood haunts in Wisconsin woods. At first seeming to adorn a fantasy of military rescue, the pines ultimately pointed to a truth in the landscape, placing me back in my own American scenes.
 The show runs from March 14, 2020, to January 18, 2021, at the Carnegie Museum of Art. It will travel to other locations.