The independent Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, England, has a terrifying time-line on its website:
“In recent history, Hanoi became the capital of Vietnam, when the North and South were reunited at the end of the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975).
During the 1980s, Vietnam was recovering from years of turmoil – not only from the 20 year war that had just come to an end, but also the preceding French-Indochina War (1946 – 1954) and Sino-Indochina War (1979). Although still locked in a series of conflicts throughout this time with Cambodia (The Cambodian-Vietnamese War 1975 – 1989), everyday life continued.”
There must be name for the figure of speech in those last three words – it’s not quite bathos, is it? Whatever it’s called, it’s savage.
The reason I was browsing the website – indeed the reason the timeline is there – is that in 2010 the Museum of East Asian Art showed a number of pictures from a remarkable archive.
John Ramsden was posted to Hanoi between 1980 – 1983 as a senior British diplomat there, Deputy Head of Mission. He was a wholly amateur photographer, but the fact that he was able to photograph there at all was extraordinary. Film was in very short supply, and he had no easy access to a darkroom: all his films had to be processed on occasional trips to Bangkok. More than those logistical problems, relatively easy to solve, was the fact that there were very few Western people on the streets then, and that inevitably, as Ramsden himself puts it, he ”stuck out like a sore thumb.” Yet he encountered no opposition to his presence or his camera, even when he photographed such things as the local power station, which one would have thought an obviously sensitive subject in an excessively poor country whose infrastructure had just taken the mother and father of all beatings.
Ramsden made something close to 2000 pictures in his time in Hanoi, just walking or bicycling the city and the outskirts, and he has begun to find that they strike a rich chord most notably with the young generation of Vietnamese people. A recent brief exhibition in London was put up with the help of two UK organisations of Vietnamese professionals, and the hope is that they will be able to raise funds to send them to Hanoi later this year. The pictures will then have come full circle.
When you meet John Ramsden he is quietly bowled over by the gentle resilience of the Vietnamese. The toughness of those young people in London he has got to know through the project to get the pictures seen strikes him hard: many of them arrived very young in London to study, with neither relatives here nor the English language. That throws him back to his experience in Hanoi in the early 1980s, when he found nothing but kindness and interest despite, as he acknowledges, the great majority of local people hardly being expected to tell him from an American, the nation which had until so very recently being straining every sinew to wipe Hanoi off the map. But then, he adds, they did win.
A once-famous picture by Tim Page shows a Cobra helicopter pilot at Dau Tieng in 1969. He is in silhouette, faceless, just the necessarily animate part of the war machine. A row of those droll stickers that Americans affect, like bumper mottoes, to advertise their places in the grand scheme of things are just legible down the side of his helmet. “Bomb Saigon Now”, says the upper one. “Bomb Hanoi Now”, the next. “Bomb Disneyland Now”, the third. The punchline? “Bomb Everything.” People in Hanoi knew what that meant, all right, and it wasn’t a joke.
Times change, and John Ramsden finds that many, perhaps now a majority, of Vietnamese people are flabbergasted to see what Hanoi was like in 1980. It had been mauled by war for years – that timeline again – but it hadn’t been mauled by globalization. When you look at these pictures, you see a poor city but one built at the human scale. Ramsden clearly liked it very much as a city, as well as liking the people who gave it its character. Hanoi is unrecognizable and I’m not sure it’s so easy to like the raging metropoles of Asia any more. All over the world, people have flocked to cities in the hope of ‘making it’. I forget the date – it has either just been or it’s just about to pass – when more than half the world’s population will live in cities. 1980 is not that long ago, but it’s a generation.
There is a footnote. There are more photographs than we know what to do with. Staggering volumes of pictures are uploaded to social networks every day, far more than anybody could ever need or be able to see. Pictures are taken for no reason, ‘shared’ for no reason, stored for no reason. The vast majority of them are just digital noise, a background roar of visual stimulation which gets in the way of clear seeing. John Ramsden was a modest photographer of no great pretension. He used the camera to get to know the city, perhaps also to shield him a little as he exposed himself to it. Yet it is important that his pictures have survived because they can do a job for people who were all-but deprived of photography for a long time, and that time is long enough ago that memory of it is beginning to fade. His pictures might simply have sat on hard drives, as they had no doubt sat (before he scanned them) in boxes or envelopes. Rescuing them and getting them seen adds to the number of published pictures. But these are not just noise.
It is the fact that it is Vietnamese people themselves who are driving the project to get these pictures seen that is striking. I’ve written it before but it bears repeating that the full content of pictures is just as much made by those who see and use them as by the photographers (or camera operators) who did the original practical business. Pictures only really acquire any importance when they have something to do. Here is a fine example of a group of pictures which have found their purpose. Call it what you like: documentary, memory, perhaps even something tending towards conscience. Between a former diplomat with gentle eyes and a new generation of people who are hungry to be shown what they cannot recall, these pictures have quite suddenly become something. They’ve become an asset and a collection of stories and an invitation to understand more clearly. That’s what we call an archive of photographs, and it matters for all sorts of reasons which were not predictable when the pictures were first made.
More information on John Ramsden’s photographs from Hanoi can be found on the website