Silent General / A conversation with An-My Lê

An-My Lê is interviewed by Kostas Prapoglou

The practice of Vietnamese American photographer An-My Lê engages documentary reportage exploring the ways warfare and human conflict have an impact on natural landscapes. Her work surveys how collective memory, national identity and geopolitics are filtered through media interpretations of war and the emergence of newly shaped realities. An-My Lê is a professor of photography at Bard College in New York and has presented her work in various solo exhibitions at the MK Gallery, Milton Keyes (UK) and Museum Aan de Stoom (Belgium) in 2014; Baltimore Museum of Art (USA) in 2013; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (USA) in 2008; Dia: Beacon in 2006-07 and MoMA PS1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York in 2002. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (USA) will feature a major solo show of her work in March 2020. She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2012); the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2010); the National Science Foundation, Antarctic Artists and Writers Programme Award (2007); the John Gutmann Photography Fellowship (2004) and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship (1997). 

An-My Lê, Fragment IV: The Monumental Task Committee press conference with Demonstration by Descendants of General
P.G.T Beauregard, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2017 PIgment print 40 x 56 1/2 in. (101.6 x 143.5 cm) 

Kostas Prapoglou: Your solo show at Marian Goodman gallery in London presents the ongoing project Silent General (2015– ) along with selected works from 29 Palms (2003-04). What was the source of your inspiration for both series?

An-My Lê: By the time 29 Palms came about, the phrase “another Vietnam” had become a universal phrase invoking the idea that America had a past it should and could learn from. So, when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it seems that we were willing to risk another Vietnam. For the first time, I felt that I was finally participating in American life as an American. My past was now part of the American present; not as a refugee but as an American among Americans wondering what “another Vietnam” could possibly mean. I was feverish and photographing at the Marine Corps Base in Twentynine Palms allowed me to share space and place with the young men and women who were going to be in harm’s way. We were all standing at this precipice, them training for the unforeseeable, me contemplating and trying to preserve the moment before the losses. Silent General is about what it might mean to respond to dramatic events at home and their intimate relationship to landscape and conflict. The fever-pitch level of rhetoric talks of civil war, and of breaches of the constitution gave me a sense of purpose and challenged me to photograph the American landscape. Elements of chance such as an invitation to photograph on the set of a period film taking place during the Civil War, the break-out of the controversy surrounding the removal of the Confederate monuments also came into play. They increased my sense of possibilities for finding meaningful contradictions in an American landscape characterised by competing realities. 

An-My Lê, Fragment II: Lutheran Church Melville, Montana, from The Silent General, 2019 Pigment print 40 x 56 1/2 in. (101.6 x 143.5 cm)
An-My Lê, Fragment VII: Swamp, Film Set (Free State of Jones), Chicot State Park, Louisiana, 2015 Pigment print 40 x 56 1/2 in. (101.6 x 143.5 cm) 

KP: You were born and raised in Vietnam and fled with your family to the US as political refugees in 1975. To what extent does memory and identity influence your work?

AML: I hear people talk about memory as inspiration for their work especially in photography. The problem I have with memory as being raw material is similar to issues people have with photography itself. For me, the literal is less interesting than the formal. I realise that my work generates questions about my story. Memory is only valuable to my process because it has provided me with a series of curiosities. Trauma is not a gift. I don’t see my work as a confession or an act of healing. Memories about abrupt shifts, insecurities, being an outsider, fear, chaos, trauma and a refugee’s experience of a dramatic culture shock influenced my work, they are not things I am trying to describe or use to give somebody a vicarious experience. Most importantly, I have learnt about the urgency of adaptation, being taught new rules, the significance of grasping new context as quickly as possible. Making work that is a direct political or institutional critique, the need to dig and unveil, would not make sense for me. Growing up, I always knew there were hostile forces and good intentioned people with influence. Power and authority were always at play. I saw it with the catholic nuns, at the French cultural centre, in the refugee camps. I have always been aware of multiple agendas being promoted in these different institutions even in the microcosm of my family. Ultimately, the ways you maintain connectedness to a landscape of authenticity when you have no control, no roots. This may explain why I have gravitated towards the notion of skilled labour as transportable commodity, something tangible you can take with you when everything falls apart, when the world is pulled under you and you must run. My experience is mirrored by what I choose to photograph. Skills, knowledge and confidence (or lack of) are all important subjects I have been interested in depicting over the years. Looking back, it seems that I am testing myself over and over again by placing myself in high-stake work situations that require urgent adaption whether we are talking about spending time with Vietnam war re-enactors in the woods of North Carolina, berthing on an ice breaker in the Bering Sea or a nuclear aircraft carrier in the North Arabian gulf, living at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica. Over the years, I came to appreciate the individuals. I also learnt to value landscape; it resists no matter how fierce the military.

An-My Lê
Infantry Officers’ Brief, 2003-2004
Silver gelatin print
Image: 37 1/2 x 26 in. (95.3 x 66 cm) Frame: 38 1/4 x 26 3/4 in. (97.2 x 67.9 cm)
An-My Lê, Marine Palms, 2003-2004, Silver gelatin print26 1/2 x 38 in. (67.3 x 96.5 cm)

KP: Your practice embraces –amongst others– elements of conflict journalism, documentary reportage and media representations of war. How do you see such elements influencing or interfering with collective consciousness and the way viewers understand contemporary realities?

AML: Collective consciousness is interesting. When you commit to a medium, you learn about what character that medium has in the popular imagination. As you learn about a medium, you learn what people think about that medium. Photography seems to be capable of regularly scandalising people. Photography wears so many hats and serves so many needs in our visual culture. The moving image seems to have done nothing to undermine photography’s grip on people’s imagination. Photography always appears to be evidence (in art or journalism) of something and therefore it often raises issues of ethics and privileges in a way that makes these issues inseparable from the medium. People ask more questions about formal approaches in relation to content when talking about photography than they do with either documentary or narrative films. Sometimes it seems like photography becomes a social contract in people’s mind and while very few art photographers would ever use the word truth, in describing their photographs, I believe we all, as artists using photography, benefit from the existence of this idea of photography’s paradoxical relationship to truth.

An-My Lê
Fragment VIII: US Customs and Border Protection Officer, Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge, Presido TX, 2019 Pigment print
56 1/2 x 40 in. (143.5 x 101.6 cm)

KP: Landscape photography plays a pivotal role in your visual vocabulary. Why have you chosen to capture through your lens the relationship between natural environment and human intervention, especially during conditions of war and conflict?

AML: Regardless of your training and the context in which your work evolves, there is a point in time when you are going to ask what is going to be most challenging for you as you forge ahead. I know that there is a wide belief that photography is easy. Production value, lighting, sophisticated cameras contribute to some of the ideas about what makes anybody’s photography art. At a certain point, regardless of their medium, a certain kind of author is going to want to challenge themselves. I wanted to take on a subject that is larger than me in every way, a subject conceptually and formally larger than my experiences. I wanted to make in a single image something coherent and visually challenging. It was important to find out what is in my control and what I have to contend with in terms of lighting and other opportunities. I developed an intuition. I learnt to make pictures where I haven’t completely resolved the relationship but found an object balance between my imagination and multiple influences that are competing in my frame. 

An-My Lê
Fragment IV: Family under the Presidio-Ojinaga- International Bridge, Texas/Mexico border, 2019 Pigment print
56 1/2 x 40 in. (143.5 x 101.6 cm)

KP: You have presented your work in many countries around the world. What are the reactions of audiences in different countries, especially with regards to issues involving displacement and war ethics?

AML: This is an interesting question; ignorance reigns. I am not an expert on everything I photograph – even if I never show my work outside the US, I would still expect all sorts of responses from culture to culture. But this can be exhausting to catalogue. I think about the time I gave a talk about my work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. Almost everyone in the Japanese audience was terrified of militarisation. They were still haunted by their own past. They didn’t respond to my work as rhetorical or position taking but through it they were reminded of their deep wound. I related to that. I felt a real affinity. But no one was going to tell them about the reality of war, the grim reality not being a subject to start rhetorical nonsense. Usually, I would be asked: “so, are you for or against war?” It is troubling; who is to say whether I get questioned for not taking a clear stand because I am a woman. I have learnt about people’s deep-seated fear that an artist might be, in addressing a subject with ambiguity, complicit in glamorising, simplifying or justifying war.

An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Colonel Greenwood, 2003-4

KP: How do you see your ongoing projects developing? What are your future plans?

AML: I have been very excited about working in a heterogenous way and allowing my intuition to be more front and centre. I am engaged in what is the classic American road trip, tapping into the zeitgeist. For a long time, I never thought this was something I could participate in. Then I was looking at Robert Frank’s the Americans again after reading Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days and thinking about big ideas about the American landscape. I was reminiscing about how studying the works of Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and Robert Adams was a big part of my education on the American landscape. Even though my subject lied elsewhere then, I had great interest in their formal problem solving, the potential of their visual language. In retrospect, I now completely understand the way they embraced a combination of chance and a set of convictions about what was going on in the country. Their work contrasted the state of American culture and the impossibilities of separating the American myths from the American landscape. Now that I am engaging in this tradition, I have learnt that, whatever that tradition is, it is not about being authoritative or diagnostic. It is all about intuition, signs and one’s sense of where tensions can be seen and depicted. Right now, there are two Americas, left and right – we are looking at the same place from radically different perspectives. Conflict has come home to roost. This is the home front. But I am not interested in rhetoric or position taking. I believe in spontaneous visual expression. This is a moment in time when the world will display the things that the news is hinting at. Like the song goes: “There is something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…” 

An-My Lê, Silent General, Fragment II, Fourth of July, Party Boat, Bayou St John, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2017