Patrick Chauvel (b. 1949) is an esteemed war photographer who has covered conflicts around the world for almost half a century.
A grandfather of three, he is here at the Angkor Photo Festival & Workshops to show an important body of work called “Ceux du Nord” at the projection evening tonight at the FCC Angkor.
But the photographs were not taken by him. They were the works of North Vietnamese photographers that covered the battlelines of Vietnam War from the other side that Chauvel was covering.
These rarely-seen images were given a standing ovation at the Visa Pour l’Image Festival at Perpignan, France recently. APF Festival Director Jean-Yves Navel who saw the photos in Perpignan then invited Chauvel to show these images here, which Chauvel quickly agreed.
We sat down with Chauvel in a question-and-answer (Q&A) session to talk more about how he obtained these images and why it is important for people to see them today. The interview has been edited for brevity.
APF: When did you first started working as a photographer?
Chauvel: In 1967, I started working as a war photographer which I have been doing for almost half a century now. I covered the Israeli Six-Day war, and my first big story is on the Vietnam War in 1968, which included the war in Cambodia and Laos.
APF: Tell us more about the body of work that you are showing at the Angkor Photo Festival this year.
Chauvel: I have a foundation, and I am constantly looking for archives of forgotten and unknown photographers.
I have thought about my North Vietnamese colleagues for the past 40 years. Many times, when we see the bombings during the war, we would wonder how anyone could survive and how reporters and photographers on the other side could have worked in such conditions.
When we were in Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City), we would have a drink with other photographers and said, “To the North guys, whoever they are”.
Last year, I was invited by the French Embassy’s Cultural Service in Hanoi to talk about war photography and I wondered, “Hey, maybe some of them did survive”. I found four North Vietnamese photographers and they showed me their work. I was amazed because their works were fantastic.
I decided to show them to people because some of them were very famous and the pictures were probably seen by the other side- East Germany and Moscow but on this side, we’ve never seen them. The idea is to show the pictures taken from the Communist side to the world.
APF: Tell us about the process of finding these photographers and photographs.
Chauvel: Once you find one photographer, you find everybody because they all know each other, even among the South Vietnamese photographers. The hard part is to go through the archives of the Vietnamese government.
There are about 1,000 books with tiny pictures and Vietnamese captions, and we have to go through every book to make our choices. We made small prints of about 300 pictures, and we scanned these pictures in high resolution.
I have an editor who came with me, and another friend working on this project. There is also a lot of work in Paris, which involves cleaning the pictures which had lots of scratches and dust. When the North Vietnamese photographers saw the pictures again in Perpignan, they nearly didn’t recognize them because they were much better printed than the originals.
It took us a lot of work, but the pictures are so incredible that they have kept me going.
APF: Are you now friends with these North Vietnamese photographers?
Chauvel: Yes, we talk to each other. One of the North Vietnamese photographers told me about an explosion of a building in Quang Tri province on the right side of the road and he said it hurt him in the arm. I corrected him by saying it was on the left side. Then, we realized we were there on the same day, about 100 meters from each other, just not from the same side.
I am making a film about the process of meeting them and telling their stories. The film is about reuniting them and going back to history with these North Vietnamese photographers. There was a lot of propaganda back then but today, they are all part of history.
I still don’t agree with their politics. But we are doing the same job, and this is what I recognize.
APF: What is the difference between the coverage of the VIetnam War by the North Vietnamese photographers and those in the south?
Chauvel: The photographs are incredibly positive. You don’t see many dead people in their pictures but there are many photos of people smiling with their flags.
Our ideals about covering the war were different. We were showing how terrible war was but the North Vietnamese were taking romantic pictures of heroism so that the war may continue. They were there to stimulate courage among the people so that they would continue to fight for their cause, which is reunification.
Most of these photographers were in the army and so, they also had guns. Their first mission is to fight, and the second, to record the fighting. But it is obvious these guys were very good photographers. It is art and you can see there is a lot of pain and work involved in getting these photographs.
APF: Why is it important for the young people to see these photographs today?
Chauvel: History is usually written by the winners, but that is untrue for Vietnam. Most books about the Vietnam War had been written by South Vietnamese and Americans. It is about time the North Vietnamese tell their story, even if I don’t agree on their side of the story.
The young people in Vietnam do not know much about the war, and come 30th April next year2015, it will be the 40th anniversary of Vietnam War’s end. These photographers are now aged between 75 and 90 years old. And so, this is probably the last few opportunities that the witnesses have to tell the story and get more people interested in it.
Any nation that forgets its past will lose its balance. Wars are part of our history and history is part of our lifeline, our humanity. If the young people don’t know about this piece of history, they will repeat this mistake.