Gordon Ward Gahan Collection

War Photography

War Photography

As a military photographer in Vietnam, Gahan became part of the long-standing relationship between photography and war that is almost as old as photography itself. Since the first pictures of combat were taken in the late 1840s, the contents, styles, and dissemination of war photographs have varied in response to changes in technology, public demand, and government censorship. While the last weighed heavily on combat photography in the early twentieth century, by the Vietnam era civilian photographers were, theoretically at least, free of all official censorship. However, the same freedoms were not always permitted to military photographers, who remained largely anonymous and whose pictures sometimes went unreleased for reasons as seemingly innocuous as showing a soldier smoking or without his shirt on—anything that could cast the military in a negative light.

Even so, in the long history of war photography, the Vietnam conflict stands as a turning point. Both military and civilian photographers in Vietnam were closer to the action than ever before. Moreover, they recognized the coexistence of, and tension between, documentation and art that is inherent in photography, and they did so in a way that the mid-nineteenth-century originators of war photography never did. Like photographs today, those taken in Vietnam were meant “to be seen immediately, to have an effect, to make an impact, to move us, stir us, make us feel sickened, to engender in us a sense of outrage” [1]. The same potential and immediacy are present in Gahan’s photographs. Again and again they harness this sense of the power of the photograph not only to record what “actually” happened but to express a particular point of view. Their resonance lies in their ability to be simultaneously historical and intensely personal.


1. Jorge Lewinski, The Camera at War: A History of Photography from 1848 to the Present Day (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 211.