July 1973: Lê Minh Trường on Active Patrol in Cà Mau Province

Photographer and war correspondent Lê Minh Trường was one of the most venerated photographers in Vietnam during the second half of the twentieth century, recognized for his black-and-white photographs. A pioneering documentarian of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Trường famously developed his photographs while on location, carrying chemicals and china plates in his backpack and washing his prints in nearby streams at night.

Due to inferior equipment and limited film – the Vietnamese photographers did not have access to telephoto lenses –Trường constantly put himself at risk. During trench warfare in South Vietnam, Trường always followed the soldiers into the frontline firefights to ensure he would be close enough to take a picture. Not just a documentarian, Trường contributed to the moral of Vietnamese troops in his own way, showing compassion by sending photos of subjects home to their families for support.

Trường snapped the portrait of a young Vietnamese soldier walking through the U Minh Forest in Cà Mau Province (fig. 1). Much like the peaceful scene painted by Nguyễn Thanh Châu in the Mekong Delta, the young man’s relaxed smile in Trường’s photograph conveys a semblance of hope that soldiers of the Việt Cộng must have felt after the Paris Peace Accords were signed and that the conflict with America and South Vietnam was coming to a close. However, as the soldiers captured seem to be on an active patrol with weapons and full military equipment, Trường’s photograph shows that the forces under the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government were still prepared to fight in order to capture more territory as American troops were evacuated from the country.

Figure 1: Lê Minh Trường, 1973, U Minh Forest, Cà Mau, “Chiến sĩ U Minh (Soliders in U Minh).” Silver gelatin print on Ilford 11 x 14, 255 gsm, multigrade, semi-matte paper.

Even after he had finished his film, Trường would not be free from danger. Often shooting behind enemy lines, he was required to walk back through enemy territory – sometimes as far as fifty miles – in order to relay film back to Hanoi.

Original wartime photographs from North Vietnamese photographers are extremely rare. Nine out of ten North Vietnamese photographers were killed in the field, whether from battlefield injuries, aerial bombings or from illnesses sustained in the field, such as dysentery and malaria. In addition, photographic materials were rare, hard to develop and many photographs were destroyed, lost or seized on the way back to North Vietnam.

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