‘It’s Not Black and White’: Watch Vietnamese Photographer An-My Lê Make Images That Reveal the Complexity of War

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

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21: An-My Le is photographed on September 21, 2012 in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by Matt Carr for Home Front Communications). Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The photographer An-My Lê was born in 1960 in Saigon during the height of the Vietnam War. She knew nothing else growing up. “War was a part of life for us…it’s something we take in stride,” she told Art21 in an exclusive interview back in 2007.

She and her parents fled Vietnam, eventually landing in the United States as political refugees in 1975. Throughout her career, however, war has never been far from her mind. Although  describes her work as “landscape photography,” the images she captures happen to be almost exclusively the landscapes of war.

Using an old-fashioned Deardorff wooden camera, she travels to witness military exercises, battles, and their aftermath. The tool is “so cumbersome it makes me take a particular type of picture,” she told Art21.

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 Twenty-First Century” Season 4 episode, “Protest,” 2007. © Art21, Inc. 2007.

“I think my main goal is to try to photograph landscape in such a way so that history could be suggested through the landscape,” she says in the video, “whether industrial history or my personal history.” Despite her fascination with the military structure, she knows firsthand the traumatic implications of war. “It’s very complicated, it’s not black and white…and I think that’s why the work seems ambiguous,” Lê says. “It’s meant to be.” 

Right now at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the most comprehensive US survey of Lê’s work is on view in “An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain.” More than 100 photographs by the artist document military training, maneuvers, and reenactments. By turning her lens on the structure of the armed forces, we are able to see the individuals at work behind the massive complex—and are forced to reckon with our own feelings toward conflict.


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain” is on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art through July 26, 2020. 

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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