Gordon Ward Gahan Collection

Publicity Photographs

Publicity Photographs

The mission of military photographers in Vietnam was two-pronged: to provide a historical record of the war for the Pentagon archives, and to create a visual record of operations, equipment, and personnel. To achieve these aims, the United States relied on multiple outfits devoted exclusively to audio and visual documentation of the war: the 221st Signal Company (Photographic)/Southeast Asia Pictorial Center (aka SEAPC); the Department of the Army Special Photography Office (aka DASPO); and individual photographers assigned to the information offices of all brigade-sized units [1]. As an information specialist when he arrived in Vietnam, Gahan was a member of this last group.

In October 1967 Gahan requested reassignment to the Saigon bureau of Pacific Stars and Stripes on the basis of his previous experience as a photojournalist. “The work I am presently doing,” he explained, “consists mainly of publicity photographs (awards, picture stories on a unit, etc.).” These “publicity photographs,” which constitute a large portion of the present collection, include images of entertainment, recreation, and the daily noncombat activities of specific units [2].

Several such publicity photographs appeared in a story on Long Binh Post, the largest US army base and one of the primary command headquarters in Vietnam, published in the April 1968 volume of Army Digest. The remaining photographs that fall into this category capture the daily life of the soldier engaged in workaday tasks: loading and unloading cargo, assembling helicopter rotors, cleaning and maintenance, and walking endless fields. While lacking the sensationalism and carnage of the most famous images of the war, these “picture stories on a unit” offer a sense of the average daily experience in Vietnam. The iconic scene of the war suggested in them is the soldier in a rice field or jungle, on seemingly interminable patrol. Collectively, they present a visual experience of the war that in some small way mimics the experience of being there. Failing to convey a sense of time and duration and often lacking an explicit purpose, they capture some of the tension and ever-present uncertainty of the Vietnam War itself.

 


1. A brigade is a tactical and administrative unit that has a headquarters and at least one infantry or armored unit, plus supporting units, typically numbering between 1,000 and 7,500 men.

2. Gordon W. Gahan, Request for Reassignment, October 9, 1967. Copy in artist file, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art, Harvard Art Museums.