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Australians in Vietnam; Photography, art and the war

From the first moment of Australian involvement in 1962 until the present, the Vietnam War has been represented in a myriad of different ways. This essay will look at the photography taken during the war by Defence Public Relations staff and enlisted personnel, the work of official war artists and others during the war and art made since the end of the war. It seeks to explain some of what these objects signify and the role they have played in shaping Australians' perceptions of the Vietnam War.


P02177.009 Blindfolded Viet Cong suspects awaiting interrogation, Duc Thon, November 1966

Television, magazine and newspaper pictures provided the major source of visual imagery during the war. Television, in particular, changed the way in which Australians received images of conflict with its ability to show audiences graphic film footage of events almost as soon as they occurred. At the same time, still photography was produced by the Department of Defence for publication in newspapers and magazines. Unlike in previous wars, Defence did not appoint official military history photographers and cinematographers, relying instead on their own Public Relations photographers. The result was that most of these images have greater value as promotional material rather than as documentation of the conditions and conduct of the war. Amateur photographers from within the ranks took snapshots to act as a personal record and as mementos of the events, places and people they had seen. Freelance photojournalists also covered the War producing some of the grittiest images, which were highly saleable to publishers.

The Australian War Memorial holds some 10,000 Defence Public Relations negatives from Vietnam. While this may seem a great many it should be realised that they represent the work of some forty photographers over a period of nine years. In contrast, the Memorial holds more than 8000 photographs from the Korean War, covering a period of less than three years.

While Defence Public Relations photographers worked in the same theatres and situations as combat troops, including the bases, the towns and cities, on operations, aircraft and helicopter flights and at sea, they operated under significant constraints. The most obvious of these was the decision about what subject matter was appropriate: the photographs were intended as promotional material rather than factual records of the war. Few formal guidelines were issued to the photographers yet the majority of the images they captured were self-censored, officially vetted or had inherent restrictions imposed by their use in the Defence 'home town' program. [1]

The 'home town' program was an extensive public relations scheme whereby the Department of Defence sent, solicited and unsolicited, photographs and news stories to the media across Australia, deliberately tailoring the content to have local appeal. It is for this reason that almost all personnel depicted in the photographs are identified by name and rank and their place of civilian residence or origin is given. In this way Defence was able to provide its campaign with an element of 'local-boy-makes-good', concentrating on lighter, human interest stories and without having to concede too much of the grim reality of war. Informal, chatty captions were included with the photographs so that editors of small local papers, often the only full-time members of staff on such publications, had most of the copy work already done for them.


EKN/67/0130/VN B Company, 7RAR, about to be air-lifted back to Nui Dat after a cordon and search of Phuoc Hai village, 8 August 1967

Many of the photographs were taken on the bases used by Australians, and these are imbued with a typically Australian ethos of mateship and camaraderie. Others, taken in cities and towns such as Saigon and Vung Tau, have a deliberate tourist feel to them. A large number of photographs deal with the civil aid programs and show Australian troops dispensing medical and humanitarian aid and gifts to grateful villagers, particularly the elderly, women and children.

Photographs of patrols and operations generally depict Australian troops in heroic, deliberately posed shots of helicopter 'insertions' and 'extractions', or stoically pressing on through mud or forest. Images of Australian wounded appear, but the injured are always conscious and being given medical attention. Even images of events as drastic as a major plasma transfusion in the field are reassuring in their suggestion that modern medical science is available to all, no matter where they may be. The photographs of 'dust offs' (medical evacuations by helicopter) suggest that full hospital facilities are only a radio message away.

There is only one series of photographs that documents the death of an Australian soldier. These few colour photographs depict a chaplain giving the Last Rites to the dying man, already partially wrapped in the hoochie used as a substitute body bag in the field, and several later stages as his body is removed to a helicopter pick-up point, winched aboard and flown away. These images were never released during the war. [2]

The enemy are always depicted as defeated. They are shown hands tied, blindfolded, awaiting interrogation. Although now unarmed and looking meek, they are always closely guarded, suggesting they are dangerous and treacherous. Although enemy dead are photographed on many occasions graphic images were never made public at the time of the war. Army Public Relations photographer Sergeant Chris Bellis' image taken on the morning after a night ambush against Viet Cong at Thua Tich in June 1969 is an example. [3] The contorted body of a Viet Cong wearing a light shirt and shorts, his head haloed by barbed wire, dominates the entire foreground. In the middle distance, with a second Vietnamese body, are seven Australian soldiers milling about. In the original albums presented to the Australian War Memorial by Defence Public Relations 'NOT FOR RELEASE' is written heavily over the small print of this negative. There are many similar examples to be found throughout the albums.


EKN/69/0183/VN Chaplain attached to 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC Battalion) administerting Last Rites to an Australian soldier killed in action, Phuoc Tuy province

The amateur photography of service personnel generally follows the same themes and subjects as the Public Relations photographs. Many have a similar bonhomie. These photographs were taken as records of the experiences undergone, events encountered and friendships made during the war. While most of these photographs fall into the rather detached reportage of tourist snap shots some show the personality and attitudes of their authors. Images of the enemy, in particular, fall into the latter group.

Many service personnel photographed the bodies of dead Viet Cong or North Vietnamese troops. In these images one gets a sense of morbid interest in violent death, perhaps because the photographers faced the same potential fate themselves, perhaps because of macabre voyeurism. Other images such as photographs of Viet Cong suspects awaiting interrogation reveal a sense of superiority over or scorn for a defeated foe.

The Vietnam War has been variously described as 'the most photographed war' and 'the television war'. It was certainly covered exhaustively by professional photojournalists, including Americans Robert Cappa and Larry Burrows, Welshman Philip Jones Griffiths and Englishmen Tim Page and Don McCullin, all of whose reputations rested on their reportage of war from around the world. Neil Davis is perhaps the best known Australian photojournalist to go to Vietnam, yet he, like most others, worked with US and South Vietnamese troops. Given the Australian media's general refusal to post correspondents to Vietnam long-term and their propensity to use images from international wire agencies, most reportage of the Vietnam War in Australia tended to have a bias toward depicting US operations; Australian actions became just a small part of the bigger picture.

'The camera doesn't lie' is believed by many people to be an aphorism; it is not. The public perception of photography is that it is a factual record, a moment of unquestionable reality suspended in time. But photographs are open to manipulation like any other image and this is true of those taken in Vietnam for consumption in Australia.

The subjects of the Department of Defence Public Relations photographs have been carefully chosen, posed and edited. They have been further manipulated through association with the pre-written captions. They use a background of myth and symbol familiar to Australians including mateship, courage, a belief in the rightness of the country's cause, implied references to the original ANZACs, as well as tourism and travel advertising, to promote political and military ideologies within a broader social context. [4]

The messages contained in private photographs are also subject to manipulation. The most basic of these is the same as for the Public Relations photographs: this moment or that, this person or another, which scene, which angle? Words associated with these snapshots also transform the meaning of the images. The handwritten notes beside the photographs in family albums or the anecdotes told by the photographers when showing the pictures to relatives or friends affects the interpretation as personal beliefs are projected into the images.

Perhaps the most famous Australian photograph of the Vietnam War is by the Army Public Relations photographer Sergeant Mike Coleridge. Taken on 26 August 1967 at Phuoc Hai it depicts members of 5 Platoon, B Company, 7RAR, beside the road to Dat Do after completing a cordon and search mission. US Army Iroquois helicopters are landing in the dusty road to pick up the Australians and return them to the base at Nui Dat. This photograph began its rise in popularity as late as the 1980s, when it first became available through the Australian War Memorial for commercial use. It has since become an icon and has even been used in a larger-than-life format, sand-blasted onto one of the steles of the National Memorial to the Australian Vietnam Forces, which is on ANZAC Parade in Canberra. [5]


CUN/66/0357/VN Troops disembarking from a QANTAS aircraft, Saigon, 28 April 1966

The status of this photograph as the epitome of Australia's experience in Vietnam has come about for a number of reasons. It is a well-composed action shot with a close-up group of young Australian men in the foreground, tired but successful after their mission. It shows helicopters, singly the most dominant symbol of the war in a US-influenced public mind. The photograph has been seized by publishers of both fiction and non-fiction and used on endless book covers, in magazines, journals and newspapers across the country. It has become etched into Australia's consciousness because of its constant reproduction. The image is also non-confronting. There is a safeness about it that almost belies the fact it was taken in a war zone; it could be from any training exercise in Australia. What it ultimately reveals is that Australians have claimed an image that is comfortably familiar in a popular culture influenced by American stereotypes to represent their actions in Vietnam.

Coleridge's photograph stands in stark contrast to those by Malcolm Browne of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk in Saigon in 1963, Eddie Adams of the execution of a Viet Cong suspect in a Saigon street in 1968, and Wing Wong Ut of the little girl, Kim Phuc, running naked, burning with napalm, fleeing the destruction of her village in 1972. These images symbolise the war internationally. They have a place in Australian's consciousness of the war in Vietnam but are categorised as other people's actions in other parts of the country.

The fine arts are another medium through which Australian perceptions of the war have been formed.

The Australian War Memorial first decided to appoint official war artists to work in Vietnam in July 1965, but it was not until March 1967 that the first of the two artists commissioned actually arrived there. The almost two-year delay was caused by a number of factors, including difficulty in drawing up a shortlist of artists, the decline of a commission by Ray Crooke (the Memorial's first choice) and the fact that the artists had to undergo the same rigorous jungle warfare training at Canungra, in Queensland, as combat troops. Indeed as the Department of Defence would not compromise the number of troops allocated for Vietnam the two artists were expected to perform as active soldiers if needed. The artists were Bruce Fletcher and Ken McFadyen and the 300 or so drawings and paintings they produced form the core of the Memorial's Vietnam art collection.

Bruce Fletcher carried out his commission as an official war artist between February and September 1967 and he returned to work for the Memorial again in 1970 when he painted a large commemorative painting of the Battle of Long Tan.

Fletcher worked mainly in fibre-tipped pen, although he also produced a small number of oil paintings while in Vietnam. Only a few days after arriving in Vietnam he was injured when a captured Viet Cong weapon accidentally discharged on board a RAAF flight between Saigon and Vung Tau. Consequently, Fletcher spent most of his tour in the hospital ward at the 1st Australian Logistical Base at Vung Tau. There he set about drawing the personnel and activities at the base and the hospital. His work includes rapid sketches of the tents and equipment of the Australians, portraits of known sitters and unknown ones performing daily duties. In a series of oil portraits he portrayed soldiers kitted out and engaged in a variety of army work, although the sitters may not have actually performed the duties they are depicted doing. Fletcher also worked at the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat and occasionally in the field with the troops.


ART40670 Diggers sitting on an armoured personnel carrier 1968

Ken McFadyen received his commission as an official war artist in July 1967 and was discharged ten months later in May 1968.

McFadyen produced mostly oil paintings in Vietnam and some charcoal drawings. He depicted the landscape and terrain of Phuoc Tuy province, as well as images of helicopter 'insertions' and 'extractions' and scenes from search and destroy patrols. McFadyen regularly accompanied troops on operations which often meant working in very arduous and dangerous conditions. In one statement to the Australian War Memorial accompanying his paintings McFadyen recalled 'feeling very tired, wet and muddy, covered in small black leeches competing with thousands of amber coloured ants for a place on my body'. [6]

Both Fletcher and McFadyen were realistic, illustrative artists and their work has a literalness about it. The works have an emotional detachment to them. It has been suggested that this may have been the result of having to rely on technique to work rapidly in the field under threat of enemy fire, that they needed to shut out emotion in a psychological war, or that they saw themselves as observers for whom it was inappropriate to make personal comments about the war. [7]

Fletcher's and McFadyen's work was first shown publicly in the late 1960s, when around thirty paintings and drawings were included in the Australian War Memorial's first long-term display about the War. There was no tour of Australia organised to show the works to the public as there had been for official war art after the First World War, during and after the Second World War and following the Korean War.

Sixteen official war artists had been appointed during the First World War and forty for the Second World War. While the Memorial did consider sending McFadyen to Vietnam for a second time, he did not go, and no other official war artists were appointed. Regrettably, the Memorial's Board of Trustees thought that the 300 works already received were a sufficient artistic representation of the War.

Only a small quantity of Australian art produced during the Vietnam War was concerned with the war, and much of that was protest art. Australian artists at that time were more concerned with exploring abstraction, and the war was also unfashionable in the art world. The situation was a very different one in the US where the Vietnam War inspired the ferocious Napalm, 1962, and Assassins (later renamed Vietnam), 1972, series by Leon Golub, James Rosenquist's gigantic painting F-111, 1965, and Edward Kienholz's monumental sculpture/installation The portable war memorial, 1968.

Very few Australian artists made any major statements through their art about the war and there were few public exhibitions that dealt with it. Most artistic activity took the form of poster-making for the protest movement.

During the Vietnam War, for the first time in Australia's history, most wartime posters did not express an officially sanctioned viewpoint. Instead, posters documented the protest against Western involvement in the conflict. The posters expressed the opinions of an increasing proportion of Australians who had changed from being a passive audience into motivated producers of their own placards.

Posters were produced by a broad range of Australians including amateur artists, professional graphic designers and fine artists. The posters of the anti-war movement generally adopted the imagery of government posters from earlier wars and of the pictures of war from art history. They employed pictures of flags, bombs and weaponry. Depictions of personalities (including US and Australian politicians and generals on the one hand and Ho Chi Minh and leading dissenters on the other), victims (in which the protest movement included both Vietnamese citizens and Australian conscripts) and atrocities were all used to deliver messages. While they were effective in mobilising dissent they came up with no essentially different ways for the poster to oppose conflict. What is remarkable about them is that they form the first large-scale, coherent voice of protest from Australians against the conduct of their own government.

Of the artists who did produce important works relating to the War, Noel Counihan and Clifton Pugh are among the most notable.

Noel Counihan is acknowledged as one of Australia's finest social realist painters, well known for his pictures of miners, labourers, street scenes and demonstrations. In 1950, when he was working in Britain, Counihan produced a portfolio of twelve linocuts titled War or peace which dealt with the impact of war on society and examined the growing threat posed by the atomic bomb.


P01636.014 Private Paul Ryan, 7RAR, with an M108 mobile howitzer on loan from the US Army, South Vietnam 1967

During the Vietnam War Counihan made the Boy in a helmet series of paintings, drawings and prints in which Australian soldiers are shown either as aggressors or victims or both together. Each image in the series depicts a young soldier wearing a large American-style helmet. An early painted version portrays a muscular half-naked soldier full of youthful purity, yet with the potential for violence and destruction symbolised in his tightly gripped machine-gun. As the series progresses the bodies become more emaciated, the faces more terrified, or, as in one painting, so distorted that the mouth howls with rage and pain. Counihan powerfully expresses his belief that the young men sent to fight in Vietnam returned brutalised by war and insensitive to its meaning; his once unsullied youths lose all innocence; they with distress at the beasts they have become.

Clifton Pugh had served as an infantryman with the AIF in New Guinea during the Second World War and with the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan immediately afterwards. Following his discharge he studied under William Dargie at the National Gallery of Victoria School through the soldier rehabilitation and training schemes. Pugh was particularly respected for his portrait paintings and his images of the Australian bush, outback and deserts.

In 1966 Pugh joined the anti-war movement and painted Vietnam body counts. This painting shows a tangle of battered, twisted bodies presided over by the figure of a soldier. In this work Pugh fuses the images of carnage in Vietnam being delivered by television, with his own memories of death from the Second World War, making a statement about the slaughter that is an inevitable part of all wars.

Other artists such as David Boyd, Dick Watkins, Gareth Sansom, Robert Grieve, Udo Sellbach and even George Browning, who had been an official war artist during the Second World War, also produced work influenced by or protesting against the war, but this theme tended to be only one among many for them. Reaction to the war was more sustained in the work of students of art schools.

If any art about Vietnam has had a strong influence on Australian perceptions of the war it is that done after the cessation of hostilities between Australia and Vietnam in 1973. Many veterans have made art that reflects on their wartime experiences, some in an amateur capacity, others as professional artists.

The imagery of amateur artists shows a remarkable consistency. Many veterans have produced paintings, drawings and cartoons about the psychological effects of the war. Images of helicopters and the enemy swirl together above the heads of veterans in many works, influenced by elements from popular culture such as music and cinema.

Many Australians of Vietnamese origin have produced work about the war, but these have only been seen by a wider public in very recent times. The full impact of these artists on Australian perceptions of the war is still developing.

Ray Beattie was a national serviceman in Vietnam between 1970 and 1971. After the war he studied at the Victorian College of the Arts. The war left an indelible impression on him and has formed a major theme in his work. Although it has not been shown publicly, he is working on a series of postcard-size images, one for every day he spent in Vietnam, that explore his response to the events and people there.


COL/67/0175/VN Singer Lorrae Desmond performing at a concert for troops, Nui Dat, 1967

Image for a dead man, 1980, is one of three large paintings from a series by Beattie called Sentimentality kills. [8] In these paintings Beattie expresses his reactions to the personal ramifications of having participated in the Vietnam War. Image for a dead man is a large photorealist still life depicting a wooden chair with an army jacket hung over its back. Painted medals are pinned to the jacket (as is the real 'Rising sun' badge from Beattie's uniform). His identity discs and slouch hat are also depicted hanging on the chair. On the seat is a folded Merchant Navy flag. Behind the chair is a vast expanse of cold grey wall and a disconnected telephone line running along the skirting board at the bottom.

This painting expresses a soldier's grief at the loss of comrades. The jacket, hat and medal are Beattie's. The jacket retains the shape of a wearer who is no longer there. Although Beattie survived the war he has stated that every time he heard of a comrade's death in Vietnam he felt that a small piece of himself died as well. The empty wall behind the chair symbolises the nothingness that is death; the disconnected telephone line the impossibility of communication between the living and the dead. The Merchant Navy flag was a present from the artist's father who sailed under it during the Second World War; it evokes memories of other casualties in other wars.

This is a particularly poignant painting, full of genuine emotion and sadness, that also has meaning as a memorial for the dead. But it has also provoked strong antipathy from some sections of the Vietnam veteran community; they see the work as disrespectful, claim that the order of display of the painted medals is incorrect, assert that there should not be two Vietnam service medals as shown (Beattie was in fact mistakenly presented with two) and, without realising it is a Red Ensign, object that the flag too is incorrect. But Beattie did not intend to make a formal portrayal of an army uniform. He intended it to be a contemplative, personalised statement about the repercussions of war and his tribute to the dead.

Dennis Trew served in the Royal Australian Navy as a crewman aboard the HMAS Sydney during the Vietnam War. HMAS Sydney was the recommissioned aircraft carrier that provided the main sea transport for troops and equipment between Australia and Vietnam. In 1992, in response to the dedication of the National Memorial to the Australian Vietnam Forces and an invitation from the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Trew made Names from the Book of the Dead. [9]

This is a monumental work made up of 108 toned laser prints. Around a central image of Trew, taken from a photograph from the artist's enlistment records, are arranged images and biographies of some of the men who died in Vietnam, based on The Australian newspaper's 1992 souvenir publication 500; the Australians who died in Vietnam. Across the image of himself Trew has written a comparison to Charon, the ferryman of ancient Greek myth who took the souls of the dead across the River Styx into Hades.

This powerful work explores the relationship between Trew and the men who died, some of whom Trew may have helped transport to Vietnam. It is also a kind of memorial, reaffirming the identity and the individuality of each of the dead - something which is lacking in mere numerical lists of the casualties of war. At another level the work addresses the question of what constitutes an appropriate medium for a memorial; this one is made of paper, coloured to look like ancient newsprint, not the bronze or stone which we usually expect. [10]

Trevor Lyons volunteered for National Service in 1965 and graduated from the Officer Training Unit, Scheyville, NSW, as a Second Lieutenant. He saw service in Vietnam with 2RAR during 1967 and 1968. In 1968 he received severe facial injuries from an exploding landmine and was sent back to Australia where he underwent major reconstructive surgery. Before the War Lyons had worked as a draughtsman and in the late 1980s he graduated from the Queensland College of Art where he had studied print making.

Journeys in my head, 1987, is a confronting series of 22 etched self-portraits based on Lyons' traumatic experiences in Vietnam. Continually reworking the same printing plate Lyons cuts through the tissues of his face and explores the deep psychic wounds and scars that resulted from his accident. What starts as a tentative, ghostly three-quarter profile turns to look directly at the viewer as the physical and emotional distress felt by Lyons overwhelm him. [11]

Tragically, Lyons died aged 45 in 1990, six months after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Jennifer McDuff's husband, Barry, was a national serviceman conscripted in the first ballot in 1965. His army service was deferred until he had completed a university degree and a year as a probationary teacher. He eventually completed a tour of duty during 1969 and 1970. Barry has since been diagnosed with clinical depression as a result of his war service.

ART40675 Resupplying HMAS Hobart off the coast of Vietnam 1967

In 1992, for her post-graduate degree, McDuff created 22 etchings, one for each year of her married life to then, which are framed with the printing plates cut in two and tied together to resemble dog tags. The series is collectively titled One man's war, a woman's perspective. [12] The series examines the experiences of her husband in Vietnam and their consequences for his life post-war. The works speak about the impact the war has had on the relationship between the artist and her husband and how it has affected a father's relationship with his children. Family tragedy, including the drowning of one daughter, are mixed with memories of Vietnam to present the evolution of one family's life.

What have been the visual images that have shaped the Australian perception of Vietnam and what do they tell us? Television and still photography provided more visual images of the war than the fine arts. Yet, although a significant quantity of photography was made by Australians, it was American material obtained from international wire services that dominated the media. Among veteran (and their families), this was supplemented by the photographs and cine film they took while in Vietnam.

In the years following the war the fine arts have made important statements about the Vietnam War but it is only recently that this has reached a wider audience in Australia. Our memories of the war are still most heavily influenced by photographic material, and this takes two forms: the images created at the time and the fictitious creations of popular cinema, mostly from the United States, with its revisionist rewriting of the American experience. This latter is partly accepted here by some Australians, particularly those too young to have direct knowledge of the War, as a representation of the Australian experience.

If we are to find a true visual record for the Australian experience of Vietnam we will have to look closely at all the material available, determine what it signifies and how, collaging the competing narratives into one multi-faceted picture.

Simon Forrester
Art Section
Australian War Memorial


1 Anecdotal evidence suggests that a vast number of images were culled in the selection process by Defence Public Relations. Often only a single image from an entire roll of film was kept, the rest being destroyed. There are also very few colour negatives for Defence Public Relations photographs. Photographers were instructed to use only black and white film because the images were intended for publication in monotone newspapers and for broadcast on black and white television. Several photographers were reprimanded for using colour stock obtained from US troops.

2 AWM negative numbers EKN/69/0181/VN to EKN/69/0188/VN

3 AWM negative number BEL/69/0372/VN

4 cf. Stuart Hall, 'The determinations of news photographs', in Stanley Cohen and Jock Young (eds), The manufacture of news: Deviance, social problems and the mass media, Constable, London, 1982

5 AWM negative number EKN/67/0130/VN (colour), COL/67/0781/VN (black and white)

6 Quoted in Gavin Fry and Anne Gray, Masterpieces of the Australian War Memorial, Rigby Publishers, Adelaide, 1982

7 See Anne Gray, 'Artists' visions of Vietnam', in Peter Pierce, Jeffrey Grey and Jeff Doyle (eds), Vietnam days: Australia and the impact of Vietnam, Penguin Books Australia, Ringwood, 1991

8 AWM accession number 40885

9 AWM accession number 90255

10 In 1997 Trew created a second, larger version of Names from the Book of the Dead specifically for the exhibition Vietnam voices held at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, 12 April to 8 June 1997

11 AWM accession numbers 45085 to 45106

12 AWM accession numbers 90141 to 90162