Al Knight, TAF artist member and FY2016 Indiana Arts Commission Individual Artist Program grantee, will exhibit “Visual Comparisons 50 Years Later: Vietnam and Cambodia” at the Tippecanoe Arts Federation September 16-October 21, 2016. We asked him a few questions about this educational project.
Image courtesy of Al Knight
- What has been the most surprising aspect of this project?
“In South East Asia…
The people we interacted with in Vietnam and Cambodia were very kind and gracious to us. Their attitude seems to project that we were learning from them, enjoying their company, and knowing that because their part of the world has been in strife for at least 3000 years that the bump in the road that they have named the “American War” was just an instant in the overall scheme of time. We enjoyed their food, we enjoyed their talks about their country, they created great gifts and provided specialized service for our visit. We were tourists and most importantly felt welcomed, and always safe.
Here in the Lafayette Community…
With the help of Indiana Veterans’ Home Superintendent Linda Sharp, I learned by meeting with 9 different Vietnam Era Veterans at the campus. They were willing to talk to me about the roles that they had played and their experience during their service in the Vietnam War era and their thoughts and feelings now. Although many have suffered with personal issues, tragedy, illness and family member deaths, they all proudly stand by their military obligations and responsibilities in which they served. Their statements and images are a part of the exhibit. To me, this was surprising but also one the most satisfying aspects of the project.”
2. To what extent do you engage your subjects? What conversations have emerged from your interactions with the camera and Vietnamese people?
“When we travelled in Cambodia we were accompanied by local guides. One of our guides, nicknamed “Sky” was 4-7 years old during the time period of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot (1975-8). He guided us through his past personal experience as a child growing up with starvation, death, and destruction among members of his own family and village. Many of his personal family members were lost. He described how families turned on one another out of fear of being seen as traitors or spies.
He skillfully answered our questions as to how the country is recovering after 2 million of 12 million of its citizens perished at the hand of Pol Pot. Part of this emergence is due to the popularity and the significance of the World Heritage Site Angkor Wat and the influx of world travelers. People who again feel safe to travel there!”
3. Photography is a singular medium in terms of its relationship to time. As Susan Sontag once remarked, photography does this “precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” (Susan Sontag, On Photography). Can you expand on how your project interacts with time and history? The “then and now” theme certainly posits an interesting position.
“I approached this question at only one level. Age!
The exhibit includes throwback images of President Nixon, Kissinger, and Secretary of Defense McNamara. Alongside these images in the exhibit there is a poem posted which was written near the end of World War I by Henry Grantland Rice. Rice was an American sports writer who was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on November 1, 1880. The poem:
Two Sides of War (All Wars)
All wars are planned by older men
In council rooms apart,
Who call for greater armament
And map the battle chart.
But out along the shattered field
Where golden dreams turn gray,
How very young the faces were
Where all the dead men lay.
Portly and solemn in their pride,
The elders cast their vote
For this or that, or something else,
That sounds the martial note.
But where their sightless eyes stare out
Beyond life’s vanished toys,
I’ve noticed nearly all the dead
Were hardly more than boys.
World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Do I need to say more?”
4. Photography and visual media radically affected public perception of the Vietnam War. Never before in U.S. history had such a ubiquitous flow of graphic images permeated the American scene–as evidenced in Vietnam’s role as the “living room war.” How would you compare the role of photography during the Vietnam War, and the role of photography in the United States’ present and recent past conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places in the Middle East?
“I recall that we were entering an age of world communication outside of newsprint and movie newsreels in the late 50’s and very early 60’s (for example I watched the first TV debate between Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960 on black and white grainy TV). We were quickly being introduced to high quality transmission of color television images and television was just beginning to come into dominance in the late 60’s. The Vietnam War was heating up at this time.
In my opinion, it was a technology that needed a topic. The lush greens of the jungle and the waging of an unwanted war was the chemistry that created the frenzy. Then there was all the horror.
To me it was similar to our current day computer games. Only this was real and people were being harmed. We could not get enough.
But we watched, and got angry and watched and got angrier.
Today, I think we have become complacent. After all, I can find anything I need on my iPhone without speaking a word to anyone.
I do believe that exhibits like the one I have been invited to present at TAF are in some ways threatened. Will we just stay at home and view images on our devices?”
5. What advice do you have for travelling photographers? How do you distinguish your artwork from the average tourist photo?
“There is a natural tendency to search for images that at some level are iconic. I am guilty of that also. What is important is to be able to establish some sort of context through a very limited number of such images but not search for only icon images for your portfolio. To do so creates a body of work that is like a travel brochure.
For example, the photo in the exhibit named “The Pittman Apartments – Photographed by Hubert Van Es” is iconic. (This is the image with the helicopter perched on the building roof loading evacuees.) It does help, however, to establish meaning and context for the exhibit. Beside it in my exhibit is the same building 50 years later- with a giant skyscraper behind it. It is still an apartment building but now the viewer can glimpse life in that same location 50 years later.
I instead attempt to create my own icon. (And this is not easy.) I hope the image of the five modern day Vietnamese teens taking “selfies” is an example.
In addition, if you look carefully at my exhibit, there are black and white iconic images strewn about here and there to establish context.
I am hoping that some of the rest will signal humanity, beauty, culture and the region’s future.
Oh, the advice.
Go light on the established icons.
Go heavy on creating your own.”
“Visual Comparisons 50 Years Later: Vietnam and Cambodia” will be on view 9/16-10/21 at the Tippecanoe Arts Federation. For more information, click here.