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An-My Lê: Between Two Bridges

Every now and then I'm revisiting some of the photography books and other items on my shelves here. This time it’s . . .

Fron cover of Worktown People by the photographer Humphrey Spender

This is one I bought quite recently. It’s not an artist’s monograph but rather an academic survey of An-My Lê’s work over the past three decades. Nicely presented and printed, it contains essays on each of her main series together with a wide selection of images (and a lovely poem by Ocean Vuong). 

An-My Lê is a Vietnamese photographer that has lived in the USA since 1975, arriving with her parents after escaping the war in Vietnam. As such, themes of war and territorial identity have formed an undercurrent to her work since the 1990s. 

There are a number of things I enjoy about this book. For a start the images are wonderful. Lê uses a large format camera, working slowly to explore complex social themes through landscape (mostly, but also through people). I’ve always been interested in photographers that take a sideways approach to subjects such as war and contested territories. I’m thinking of Paul Seawright (my former teacher at university) and his series Things Left Unsaid and Volunteer, for example, or Simon Norfolk’s images from Afghanistan, or Jungjin Lee’s Unnamed Road, exploring the Israeli-Palestinian borderland.


An-My Lê's approach is to take a step back or to look at things obliquely, mixing images together in a way that creates connections we might not normally consider. Over the years she has photographed groups of American men re-enacting the Vietnam war in the hills and forests of Virginia. She has followed military training and war games with the US Army and Navy, and photographed the production of a movie based around the American Civil War. As she says herself, “I am just interested in making people think about complicated issues. I don’t want my work to be reductive in simplifying war, simplifying conflict. I think that photography is capable of looking at a complicated subject in complicated ways.”

That’s such a great idea. I should keep it in mind.

For me, some of the essays in the book tend to stretch the connections a little too far. In describing an image in the Shoot II series, Caitlin Ryan suggests that tyre tracks left by landing craft on the beach, 'are emblematic of how the US military transforms the landscape even in the absence of conflict', or that the rocks in An-My Lê's mining photographs might possibly, eventually, be used to construct a military base. I’m not sure these are connections the photographer had in mind, but the idea is right; these are images that make you think within and beyond what is actually framed.

It’s an interesting book. I know the essays and the photographs will urge me to come back to look again, and look slowly. 

An-My Lê, Between Two Rivers. Published by MoMA, 2023


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