‘I’ve Always Tried to Understand the Meaning of War’: Watch Artist An-My Lê Photograph Military Exercises at a Marine Camp

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 4 episode, "Protest," 2007. © Art21, Inc. 2007.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world has been reminded of the urgent importance of wartime photos to provide live coverage of the conflict, as well as day-to-day experiences of a country in turmoil.

The photographer An-My Lê, who was born in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam war, has spent her career thinking about how images shape our understanding of war, and how they affect those who live through it.

“I’ve always tried to understand what is the meaning of war, and what does it really mean to live through times of turbulence,” Lê said in an exclusive interview with Art21, filmed in 2007 as part of its “Art in the 21st Century” series.

Lê appears at work filming and photographing military exercises, which is one way to show the activity of war, while being safely removed from its reality. “I think of myself as a landscape photographer,” Lê said, “my main goal is to try to photograph landscapes in such a way so that history could be suggested through the landscape.”

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 4 episode, "Protest," 2007. © Art21, Inc. 2007.

Production still from the “Art in the 21st Century,” season four episode “Protest,” 2007. © Art21, Inc. 2007.

The artist uses a cumbersome wood camera that allows her to take large-format images. The result is a body of work that lives somewhere between formal depictions of the landscape’s natural beauty, and its transformation into a theater of combat. 

“I try to stay away from light that’s too dramatic,” she said, explaining that “I’d rather have something else add that element of drama… it’s not agitprop.” 


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, below. “An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain” is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through March 27, 2022. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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