Saturday, May 16, 2009

Photographs as Memories

The photographer who captured a moment in long ago war in a faraway land before most people currently on Earth were born but part of the collective memory of a lot of us who came of age in The Sixties, Hubert van Es, died in Hong Kong yesterday. He was 67.

He was a Dutchman who found himself in Southeast Asia as a photojournalist as the War in Vietnam ground to an end and produced a very famous image of came to be known as "The Fall of Saigon" (in April 1975) — a group of people scaling a ladder to a CIA helicopter on a rooftop in an attempt to escape Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army entered the city.

For two generations of Americans, Vietnam was not an especially shining moment, either in history or in memory and there are not a few who believe to this day much of our national sense of self and our place as a nation in the world was adversely impacted by an intervention that began as a well-intentioned limited involvement and ended for too many as a nightmarish quagmire.

van Es was part of a worldwide coalition of creative persons, both visual and reportorial, who witnessed a world larger than themselves and recorded moments within it and shared them with the rest of us, both in the then and now and in all the days that were to come. They recorded history but offered no judgements on it--allowing us to have the information and perspective to evaluate for ourselves.

In the decades since The Fall of Saigon, we've talked among ourselves about the meaning of our engagement, how it ended and what it all meant. In many ways, the resolve and resourcefulness we show now as we move in the world are a result of the expectations (dashed) and experiences (rescued) that we formed in the days when celluloid was the notepad of the ages. Few paid so much attention, and so well, as Hugh van Es.
-bill kenny

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