on the edge
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If you’re not living life on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.
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Sat, 19 Feb 2005
I was originally attracted to the exhibition because of its Vietnam War content, but discovered this time that about half of the space was randomly given over to other material—no doubt interesting in its own right, but of no interest to me today. What the other material did for me was merely to dilute the impact of the Vietnam content.
Leaving aside the non-Vietnam content, how did it strike me the second time around? The venue is not ideal for a photo exhibition, partly because it has so much distracting visual content anyway and partly because the light from outside is pretty uncontrolled which makes actual seeing difficult.
The photos themselves were pretty evocative, as I thought on my previous visit. Perhaps they are what you’d expect from a photo journalist in that kind of situation, but still they seemed to capture the essence of much of what I saw during my time there—blood, fear, grief, stupidity, waste, destruction, cruelty and madness. Some of the worst excesses of war were missing—whether because he failed to capture them or because he censored himself or was censored, I don’t know. And I certainly don’t regret the missing elements.
But today I made a much more serious effort to read the captions and I’ve also read most of his book, Tim Page’s NAM, which I purchased at the exhibition. So, rather than just interpreting the photos in the light of my own experience and the exhibition theme “from war to peace”, I can now put them into the photographer’s context.
And that’s where it went off the rails a bit for me. Page clearly has anti-war sentiments, at least to some extent. But his attitude, as shown in his captions and in the text of the book, is very gung-ho and boys’ own adventure and, to a lesser extent, jingoistic. He speaks constantly of “the enemy” and “us”; he employs many of the standard pejoratives of the time when speaking of the Vietnamese; and he makes it clear whose side he is on. From where I stand, he would have served his theme—from war to peace—better if he’d managed a more objective stance.
And, although I clearly have an agenda of my own—born out of my involvement in the war as a conscript—I really think the eclectic collection of images from other places (e.g., Cambodia, Sri Lanka, England) detracted from the impact of the exhibition. At the least, I’d have liked to see the Vietnam material displayed together and separately from the rest.
When I wrote about my first visit, I said that I might try to track Tim Page down to talk with him about the exhibition. But, after my visit today, I don’t think I’ll do that. Something tells me that we would end up having very different views of it all and I’d rather just take his images away with me as a reminder of a dark part of our history and a very dark part of my own life.
Should other people visit it? Yes, I think so. Nothing is ever perfect, but that’s not a reason to avoid things. And, since we all have different baggage and different experience to bring to such an exhibition, it’s quite likely that it will speak to people in ways that make the visit worth while. And if it does anything at all to push an anti-war message, then that is all to the good.