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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The jungle look

by David Gist, 21 January 2019

Thua Tich, South Vietnam, 1969-06 by Christopher Bellis
Thua Tich, South Vietnam, 1969-06 by Christopher Bellis  

Exhausted after a successful night ambush and an attempted Viet Cong (VC) ambush earlier that day, 235254 Captain (Capt) Tom Henry Arrowsmith of Campbelltown, NSW, rests on top of his armoured personnel carrier (APC) at the Government outpost of Xuyen Moc. Capt Arrowsmith is the Commander of 2 Troop, B Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment which, together with a force of infantry and engineers killed sixteen (eleven and later five) enemy in the two contacts and captured seven AK47 assault rifles, two RPG2 (rocket propelled grenade) rocket launchers, and a pistol, together with drugs, surgical instruments, and equipment. The armoured force, from the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) base at Nui Dat, was sweeping the area of north eastern Phuoc Tuy Province.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

Half a century after the height of the conflict, the war in Vietnam is still noted for the level of media coverage it attracted, with many renowned civilian journalists and photographers making their names during its course. On the other side of the media equation, military public relations personnel were often characterised as blatant propagandists, presenting a view of the war that bore little resemblance to its operational reality. But to dismiss the military’s media in such reductionist terms is to overlook the skill of many who did this job. The photographic archive of the Australian Army’s Directorate of Public Relations (DPR) contains some fine examples of portraiture, which, despite being created for propaganda purposes, remain images that convey the authentic humanity of their subjects. Indeed, the work of these servicemen demonstrates that ‘propagandist image’ and ‘engaging portrait’ are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories.

The DPR’s purpose was explicit: ‘to build and maintain public understanding of and support for the Australian forces in Vietnam’. The brief sounds somewhat Orwellian, but should be considered in context. In simple terms, Australia didn’t go to war in Vietnam – Australia’s military did. There was no home front; Australian civilians were not subjected to rationing, the threat of air raids, or any society-wide contributions to a war effort. The war was something that was happening somewhere else, and unless a friend or loved one was deployed, it would be all too easy for ordinary Australians to pay no heed to the conflict or the people fighting in it.

Thus, the DPR sought to present the war such that it could be comprehended by the Australian public, with a view to promoting support for Australia’s armed forces, which in turn was a key factor in maintaining the morale of the military personnel serving overseas. There are two important points in regards to this brief. First, the DPR was a military organisation, not a media organisation. Accordingly, questions about whether the Vietnam War was morally or militarily justified were never explored. Secondly, although DPR photographers were directed to particular events or operations by their commanders, there was a lack of specific direction about what to photograph once they got there. There were no proscriptions – no precise instructions in terms of what could or could not be photographed.

Three DPR photographers were in Vietnam at any given moment, and their duties could potentially take them anywhere the Australian Army was engaged. Two of them were based at the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province, and they received orders from their immediate commanding officer, the Public Relations Officer. Their activities included covering events at the base or in surrounding areas, or heading out on operations with Australian fighting units. The Public Relations Officer would compose captions for the images their photographers had shot. The composition of captions was an important consideration, as they enabled the DPR to establish one specific interpretation for each image.

A noteworthy feature of the DPR was how many of its photographers had prior media experience. For example, Christopher Bellis had been a press photographer for the Adelaide News, and Peter Ward for the Herald Sun in Melbourne. John Fairley had worked as a commercial studio photographer in Sydney, while David Combe was midway through a cadetship in journalism when he was called up. Being a DPR photographer was not simply a matter of being handed a camera; there were requisite skills involved and the men possessed them.

The ‘bread and butter’ for DPR photographers was the ‘Homeboy’ photograph.  This was an image depicting a soldier engaged in fairly innocuous activities, such as rifle-cleaning, reading mail or repairing a vehicle. The caption for the photograph always consisted of full details about the soldier’s identity and town of origin, and offered a particular interpretation of his activities, usually one clearly aligned with the Australian military’s mission in Vietnam. The Homeboy photographs are an excellent example of how the DPR made the war comprehensible for the civilian population. The Department of Defence made these images available to newspapers in Australia, which were much more likely to print photographs of soldiers from their local area.

These photographs could be dismissed as contrived and saccharine, given their propagandist aims. But the rationale and the end result have divergent elements: within their broad purpose of engaging and influencing the Australian public, the genre offers some beautiful, poignant examples of portraiture. Moreover, the themes in the photographs are themselves instructive, offering up insights into the Directorate’s objectives.

With regards to the Vietnamese people, the overt racism of the Second World War media was generally absent from the Directorate’s work, and the dehumanisation of the enemy – a common feature of media representations during war – was not generally applied to the Viet Cong. This is probably because Vietnam was first and foremost a counterinsurgency war with no clearly defined front line, so distinguishing between different groups of Vietnamese became a highly nuanced affair. During the Second World War, national distinctions were applied (often incorrectly) in line with race. In a guerrilla war such as the Vietnam conflict, such an assumption would have been both inaccurate and counterproductive. Overall, DPR photography shows the people of Vietnam as a backdrop to help qualify the objectives of the Australian Army.

The Vietnamese people figured prominently in DPR photography in settings concerned with ‘winning hearts and minds’. In most instances this involved the 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit. It is tempting to be cynical about these operations; however, interaction aimed at improving the lives of Vietnamese civilians were taken very seriously, for the simple, practical reason that a civilian population alienated from the South Vietnamese Government and its allies, including Australia, could potentially mean more recruits for the Viet Cong. As a result, Civil Affairs Unit activities were well covered by the Directorate, and their photographic record is replete with images of wells being sunk, houses being built, and Medical Civil Aid Projects (MEDCAPs), in which Vietnamese civilians received free medical treatment from Australian military personnel.

An image from one such project still resonates with its photographer, David Combe, nearly 50 years after it was taken. In January 1969 Combe photographed an elderly Vietnamese woman receiving an injection from an Australian Army medical assistant during a MEDCAP in the village of Phu My. Combe noticed that because the shoulder of her tunic had been pulled down to expose her upper arm, she was holding a piece of cloth to cover her left breast. Combe wrote, “[t]he woman’s face alone makes this picture … A more modest and dignified woman cannot be imagined, but [this] is one of the endearing traits of most Vietnamese’.

The presence of the Australian Army’s Viet Cong enemy was often conveyed by images capturing their materials and activities. The DPR emphasised both the professionalism and resourcefulness of the Australian soldiers, and the cunning and evil of the (communist) enemy. Images of Australian soldiers uncovering caches of hidden weapons, or discovering booby traps while on patrol, were common. The reality of a guerrilla war was presented in terms that designated the enemy as underhanded.

One such VC-related image is Kevin Thurgar’s photograph of Private John Grelck, his face framed by the remnants of a car tyre. As well as the interesting use of negative space, suggesting an experienced photographer unafraid to experiment with novel camera angles, the shot provides an example of the importance of the DPR’s captions. The tyre has been used to construct a Ho Chi Minh sandal, the ubiquitous Vietnamese footwear using tyre rubber for the soles and strips of inner tube for the top straps. The caption for this photograph alludes to the primitive resourcefulness of the Viet Cong, who must resort to making footwear from discarded car tyres in jungle villages. It ends with the reader being informed of the village’s destruction – an Australian victory.

But sans-caption, the image can be interpreted another way. The photograph was taken in November 1967, at a time when US and allied commanders in Vietnam were convinced of the soundness of their strategy for prosecuting the war. Two months later, the Tet Offensive exploded across South Vietnam, after which broad public opinion began to turn against the war. Thus, rather than as a statement on the inevitability of defeat of the communists in Vietnam, the photograph could emphasise the resourcefulness and determination of Australia’s enemy. Here was an armed force so short of resources they used car tyres to make footwear, and yet remained thorougly  committed to resisting the foreign military presence in their country. Perhaps, faced with an enemy with this degree of resolve, it is debatable whether the war could ever have been won.

As well as providing the Australian public with insights into the daily lives of the soldiers in Vietnam, the Homeboy photographs offered  insights into the conditions of the country. One can imagine what a person living in the more temperate regions of Australia would make of William Cunneen’s image of Shorty Thirkell on patrol. The oppressive heat and humidity of Vietnam, and the effect this had on a soldier is well represented in this image.

A similar message is communicated in Cunneen’s photograph of Barry Harford (incorrectly identified as Barry ‘Hartford’ in the caption) smoking a cigarette at the end of his working day. The caption mentions that Harford has completed a search of Viet Cong underground tunnels, an activity with which this particular soldier was very familiar.  Earlier in the same year Harford had been one of a group of Australian engineers who became the first allied soldiers to enter Viet Cong tunnels, searching the notorious complex at Cu Chi. Crawling through enemy tunnels equipped only with a torch, pistol
and bayonet, it constituted one of the most harrowing types of mission any soldier could undertake. Although the caption doesn’t go into detail, the Australian public would have needed little imagination to read into Harford’s cigarette, a generally accepted strategy for managing high levels of stress.

The DPR photographic record also contains many photos which are likely to have been staged. For example, the image of Ronald Tully captured by Peter Ward shows Tully giving a ‘silent hand signal’, an integral part of successful infantry patrolling. During the war in Vietnam, Australian infantry gained a reputation for successful patrolling, due largely to a highly disciplined approach which included conducting patrols in complete silence. In the scene represented in this image, Private Tully’s hand signal may have been silent, but the 35mm camera that captured it most certainly was not. Moreover, it would have been very unusual for an army photographer to be so close to the forward scout. As a general rule, army photographers were positioned toward the rear of the patrol, close to the radio operator, so that if there was a contact with the enemy the photographer would not obstruct any necessary action. All these factors suggest the shot was set up for the camera.

It’s a reiteration of the fact that the DPR was a military organisation first and foremost. It was not their task to offer the ‘truth’ to the Australian public; that was the role of civilian photographers and journalists, of which the Vietnam War had many. For an organisation that fully understood the brutality of combat action, offering the Australian public an insight into the realities of the war in Vietnam meant having to approximate aspects of military activity that were inherently dangerous.

To discount the Directorate of Public Relations portraits based on their propagandist intent is to ignore the skill and sensitivity of the photographers who took them. Throughout this archive of work, the professionalism of these men is clearly evident: they were tasked with doing a particular job, and they did it. This body of work could not be considered a substitute or an alternative to true investigative journalism, with the DPR record containing little in the way of analysis. But this archive also includes some truly moving examples of portraiture, conveying both the sensitivity of the photographer and the humanity of the subject, in a time and place where both sensitivity and humanity were often in short supply.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.