When Photos Lie to You: Visual Depictions of Needs-Based Aid among the Displaced in Postcolonial Vietnam.

Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:50 PM
Maryland Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jennifer Way, University of North Texas
In 1954 Vietnam won its political independence from France yet remained mired in civil war. Before the border closed that would divide the nation, the United States along with Great Britain and France stepped in to aid northerners migrating south. Photographs of refugees that the State Department and popular American print press published leavened the trauma of their migration and arrival in the south with American anxiety surrounding their uncertain political status.


In helping to resettle the refugees and guide their new nation into the Free World, the State Department sent American designers and artists to South Vietnam to mentor refugees in modernizing traditional craft for export to the United States. In this venture, black and white photographs aimed at an American audience at home cast the refugees as a “problem” the United States would resolve. These photographs elided the refugees’ agency, magnified their neediness, and intensified American concern whether the refugees would repatriate, pursue ties with communist North Vietnam, or remain unaligned politically.


This paper explores how photographs of Vietnamese refugee artisans, in their English-language international circulations, along with re-iterations of the same photograph, give the lie to the American aid program’s ability to control its narratives of agency and authority in South Vietnam during the early Cold War years. Captions, prose, and other photographs along with contexts and venues open up the possibility that what these published photographs of refugee artisans signified, lived as divergent narratives about craft and nationhood for the United States, Vietnam, North and South. Crucially, they invite us to expand the corpus of popular images we associate with American diplomacy and war in Vietnam, and appreciate political uses of artisans and the partisan-based contexts in which their images were charged in and in response to American aid efforts in South Vietnam.