At first glance, the new photography exhibit at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion seems simple. White space is used consistently throughout the exhibit, the empty walls displaying only a few black and white photographs each. Two short films are projected in a makeshift theater tucked away in the corners of the Pavilion and four wooden tables in the center of the room display photographs, letters, books, music scores and newspaper clippings, all dating back to the Vietnam War era.
This simplicity is the true beauty of the exhibit “We Shot the War: Overseas Weekly in Vietnam.” The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” seems to be the central focus of this exhibit, each brutally human photograph speaking for itself — these pictures do not aim to show the violence of the war, but rather to highlight the lives of soldiers and citizens alike.
“We wanted to show that war was not just about violence but it was also moments of fear, tranquility or peace, or also soldiers trying to make the best of their situation,” said Lisa Nguyen, archivist and organizer of the exhibition who also edited the forthcoming publication about the collection.
What truly makes this exhibit so memorable, though, is how it was built not only to share such striking photographs with the public, but also with the photographers and journalists who took them. They originally thought all their work disappeared along with the Overseas Weekly at the end of the war.
Back in 2014, the Hoover Institution Library and Archives acquired 20,000 photographs from photographers from the Overseas Weekly’s Pacific Edition. They then contacted every photographer and journalist from the Overseas Weekly, tirelessly seeking to identify each photographer to the best of their abilities.
“[The photographers] were very integral to the preparation process and helping build out the narrative and the story, which is pretty much why we decided to name [the exhibition] ‘We Shot the War’ because it’s really their story, rather than just Overseas Weekly photographs,” Nguyen said. “It’s really about them.”
While talking to the photographers, the organizers discovered that these photographs were not only never seen by any sort of audience, but also never seen by the photographers themselves. Bearing this in mind, the Library and Archives continued to look through more and more pictures, and ultimately came to the decision that they had to be shared with the public.
“I just thought those pictures were gone forever, so it’s kind of nice to see the negatives,” said Don Hurst, former soldier and one of the many Overseas Weekly photographers and journalists stationed in Vietnam.
A little-known fact about the Overseas Weekly is that its founder, Marion von Rospach, started her journalistic career in Stanford. Von Rospach decided to dedicate her life to journalism while writing on the Stanford Daily, later moving on to work for Stars and Stripes, a U.S. Defense Department paper located in Frankfurt, Germany, before creating the Overseas Weekly. The lack of information on von Rospach — and her collegiate career at the Stanford Daily — urged Nguyen to share this part of the Overseas Weekly story with the University.
“There’s definitely that Stanford connection that I think that story didn’t really get,” said Nguyen. “When I was researching this particular paper, I didn’t really see much information about that out there, and so I thought that it was a story that was worthy of being told to a wider audience.”
With the Overseas Weekly, von Rospach aimed to write for U.S. soldiers, delivering the perspective of the soldiers and Vietnamese citizens involved in the war, helping it become the most read paper by U.S. enlisted men.
“The Overseas Weekly wrote what was going on because a lot of weird things were going on — weird, illegal things — and [the soldiers] could read about them,” said Cynthia Copple, a journalist and photographer with the Overseas Weekly. “So that was kind of a newspaper for enlisted men, so they felt a sense of community.”
In the 1960s, when U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated, Von Rospach wanted to expand the Overseas’ operations beyond Germany, and sent Ann Bryan, a trusted journalist from Texas, to Vietnam to establish a bureau for the newspaper. Bryan, like countless other young journalists and photographers, was sent deep into the Vietnam War.
“A lot of the photographers and the journalists who became a part of the Overseas Weekly family … were soldiers, but oftentimes a lot of them were really young, straight-out-of-college students who either opposed the war themselves or who were really curious to understand what was the experience of the U.S. soldiers there,” said Nguyen.
Many of the photographs in the exhibit were taken by these young photographers and journalists. This exhibit reunited photographers and journalists with their old photographs, yet many still had trouble facing these memories once again.
“Each of the photographers reacted in their own way,” said Nguyen. “Some were very happy, some were traumatized, but all in all they were happy that their images survived because they had just assumed that they were just lost forever.”
Art Greenspon, one of the photographers who was in Vietnam, focused mainly on studying the trauma experienced by the journalists sent to Vietnam, and viewed these photographs as a healing process after the war.
“[Greenspon] also explores, not just the connections between politics, journalism and art, but also the trauma that was experienced by journalists, sort of the healing process that happens post war,” says Nguyen. “So for him, it was actually a healing process to be reunited with these photographs.”
This exhibit was not only a healing process for Greenspon, but also for Vietnam veterans, with whom many photographers lived side by side throughout the war.
“A couple of friends of mine went with people who were Vietnam vets to the exhibit, and one woman in particular told me that her husband felt really healed by that exhibit, and I think that’s fantastic,” said Copple.
Hurst is currently ill and though he has seen some of the negatives, he has not yet had the chance to visit the exhibit. Based on the photographs he’s already seen, though, he believes that they are an important part of history that should be shown to the public.
“Vietnam is a very complex war. It was like a diamond: lots of facets,” said Hurst. “Each one is different, each one is viewed differently, and I’d say we all had different Vietnams.”
Each photographer and journalist has had their own unique experience in Vietnam, some interacting mainly with the soldiers, others going straight into the battlefield. The pictures in the exhibit are meant to showcase the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of various photographers all with different experiences. However, not everyone’s ‘Vietnam’ has had the chance to be displayed by the Hoover Institution.
“What’s on exhibit is just a minuscule amount of the entire collection; it’s a really tiny fraction, so we have a lot more work ahead of us, and so that was also another inspiration of having the exhibit,” said Nguyen. “Just to call attention to the collection, to bring interest to the general community and sort of just seek assistance to help us identify the individuals who might be unnamed in the photograph, the subject, and also the photographers, as we continue the journey of developing and conserving the rest of the collection.”
“We Shot the War: Overseas Weekly in Vietnam” will be on display every day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. until December 8, 2018, at Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion, next to Hoover Tower.
Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that the name of the exhibition is “We Fought the War”, whereas it was actually called “We Shot the War”. The Daily regrets this error.
Contact Jasmine Venet at jasminevenet28 ‘at’ gmail.com.