Documentary Photographer and Activist Steve Cagan is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the project ‘Viet-Nam 1974’. To see Steve’s body of work, click on any image.
For many people of my generation, the central issue of the period of the early 1960s to mid 1970s—after the civil rights movement that had done so much to shape our thinking and our identities in the 1950s and 60s—was the US war in Viet-Nam. In civil rights days, though I was a dedicated activist, I was not doing much photography. The same was true in the early days of my anti-war activism. But once I found myself living in Cleveland, my long-simmering desire to take photographic work seriously, to combine photography and activism, began to find an outlet, and the work started developing in a couple of directions.
One of these was an early effort to document activities of a movement I was part of, always in the hope that the images would be useful for the very activities I was recording.
In 1974, I had my first opportunity to travel abroad to use photography as a tool for building international solidarity. In November of that year, along with two co-activists, I traveled to what was then still called Indochina. We made brief stops—just a few days each—in Laos and Cambodia, and had longer stays in what were then North and South Viet-Nam. Our goal was to produce materials—images and texts–that could be used by the Indochina Peace Campaign to build understanding of the damage the US war was doing, and to strengthen opposition to it at home.
This first trip held several important lessons for me. First, I had a sense of how important it was to have guides, interpreters and people who could explain things in whom I could have confidence. Sometimes, of course, it’s possible to test what guides and other people tell you against your own knowledge, and against what you see. But when you don’t speak the languages of the people you’re meeting—in this case, Vietnamese, Lao and Khmer—that is much harder to do, and the importance of confidence in your interpreters and guides increases.
This underlines the importance of—to the extent it’s possible—preparing yourself by learning about the place you’re going, the people who live there, the issues they confront. Without at least some knowledge of history, politics, social issues, culture, it’s very hard to gauge the reliability of guides and interpreters.
This is all connected to another important lesson: we have to assume that we don’t understand things in front of us. We need to comprehend that cultural differences mean we may frequently misunderstand what we see if we don’t adopt a humble approach and ask questions. This is an issue I later wrote about; it seems critical to the development of a responsible activist photographic practice.
One of the things I saw in Viet-Nam was that despite the brutality and destructiveness of the war in the South, and the inhumanity and cruelty of the US bombing campaign in the North, despite everything that the Viet-Namese people had suffered, it would have been a terrible error to see them simply as victims. To photograph them in that way would have been to participate in their victimization. I saw the need to document their resilience, their creativity, their resistance, their humanity.
I came to understand viscerally something that I had until then believed intellectually, that pity is a relatively useless response to the trials people are going through. We need rather to awaken and strengthen bonds of solidarity.
These lessons became the foundation of my approach to this kind of photography as opportunities to work in other countries presented themselves.
All images and text © Steve Cagan
By Steve Cagan
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