An-My Lê. Sniper II, from the series Small Wars. 1999–2002. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © 2023 An-My Lê

On the occasion of her exhibition An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières, the celebrated artist talked with a writer she has long admired, Lynne Tillman, about reenacting history, war, and what’s beyond the frame.

Lynne Tillman: I don’t remember how we met, do you? I remember asking you to speak to my Trans-Genre seminar, this was in 2002, and we visited your small studio in Brooklyn.

An-My Lê: I was first introduced to you and your ideas through a conversation you had with Stephen Shore in 2003 for Aperture. It was clear to me that you had a deep understanding of Stephen’s work, and that you appreciated photography on multiple levels, from a sophisticated perception of the formal language to its subsequent meaning and resonance. I love your broad, informal, and intuitive approach. It doesn’t dispel rigor, but it allows for this complex reading of photography to be more approachable. Your conversation with Stephen fluidly revealed the way photography overlaps and connects in inspiring ways with literature, painting, theater, popular and vernacular culture, psychology, and other fields.

How were you first introduced to photography? Do you remember the first photograph or series of photographs that made a great impression on you? And what do you think has made you so attuned and receptive to these overlapping connections between media?

Lynne Tillman. Haunted Houses. 2011

Lynne Tillman. Haunted Houses. 2011

LT: Thank you, An-My, we never know how our work might affect other people, what it means to them, if it does.

My father’s family photographs and the home movies he shot made the first impression. I wanted to look at them again and again. I was born nine years after the first girl, six years after the second, so I guess I wanted to know what happened before me, what their life was before I existed. I was watching another world, in a sense.

Later in life, my mother was an amateur painter, my father designed and manufactured fabrics; he had a company, Parliament Fabrics, with his brother. My father brought fabrics home, and sometimes talked about color combinations and texture. I loved movies and TV, and in college took all my electives in studio art, drawing and painting, oils and watercolors. So I learned something about making art, and its issues.

What about your background? The first work of yours I saw, the Vietnam War reenactments, with all men, except for you, and you participated as a Viêt Công. I read about your work and learned that you and your family were flown out of Vietnam by the US Army. The photographs are eerily, uncannily quiet. That struck me. Your doing it seemed strange to me, to want to reenact it...

I was less interested in a geopolitically informed survey than I was in trying to give shape, through landscape photography, to the Vietnam I had nurtured and probably invented while in exile.

An-My Lê

AML: You know, I was trying to work out so many issues with this work which became Small Wars. These reenactments are not what you think they are. Obviously, there is the photographic part which is always front and center, but the emotional motivation was also essential.

LT: It seemed strange to me, yes, in part because I knew nothing about you then. But when I did, I kind of understood it as the effects of trauma. What you had lived through.

AML: Maybe we can take a quick step back to what preceded Small Wars. I had spent five years photographing in Vietnam from the moment the US renewed diplomatic and economic relations in 1994. When we were evacuated from Saigon in 1975, we never thought we could return. Setting foot there in 1994 unleashed so many emotions. I was less interested in a geopolitically informed survey than I was in trying to give shape, through landscape photography, to the Vietnam I had nurtured and probably invented while in exile. Memory and imagination are personal and reactive, not unlike the act of photography itself. I never felt I actively avoided larger issues or direct references to war, but early on friends and colleagues were peppering me with questions and advice: “What about the war?”

An-My Lê. Cots, from the series Small Wars. 1999–2002

An-My Lê. Cots, from the series Small Wars. 1999–2002

An-My Lê. Sniper II, from the series Small Wars. 1999–2002

An-My Lê. Sniper II, from the series Small Wars. 1999–2002

LT: When America went to war in Vietnam, the draft was enacted—there were enormous protests, though LBJ knew it was unwinnable; ultimately the war brought him down, so I can understand people here wondering what you felt, and if you hated Americans, because many Americans felt guilty about the US’s participation, the use of Agent Orange, the rampant and ugly killing our country was responsible for.

AML: I felt a great urgency to make the photographs I made in Vietnam. With them I felt replenished and, in a way, guarded against any upcoming catastrophe. You know well that the completion of a project brings resolution but it also generates new questions. So, by then, I was desperate to move beyond the Vietnam photographs and confront what had become the elephant in my room. I first heard about these men who reenact the Vietnam War here in America around 1999. I felt the same way you did: OMG, why would anyone want to do this?

The reenactors I found were working out of Virginia and North Carolina. In order to participate, I had to be in character for the entire weekend. I was a North Vietnamese soldier or sometimes a Viêt Công guerilla who would be captured by the GIs and became a turncoat in what they call a Kit Carson scout.

This project threw me into a world of young American men who were too young to have grown up with the shadow of the news about the Vietnam War in their living room, let alone be of age to have enlisted or been drafted. But all of them were steeped in the lore and myth they and other Americans had created for themselves based on so much fiction and nonfiction literature, documentaries, and Hollywood movies generated around Vietnam. I was fascinated by the painstaking efforts they devoted to obtaining or replicating their Vietnam-era uniforms. It was hard to believe these reenactors did not perform for an audience.

LT: They didn’t perform for an audience, but for each other, don’t you think? Or for themselves. To be part of the past, or maybe they knew people, family, friends, who had been in that war, were killed or maimed. Reenactments of war seem to me to be about some kind of trauma they had experienced, not because of that war, but because of violence they experienced early in their lives. They must have been reenacting something close to them, and maybe unknown to them.

AML: I think both the reenactors and I were searching for an elusive experience, something ineffable. We spent more time preparing our sleep camp and doing reconnaissance through the woods than skirmishing. I didn’t want these men to replicate the horrors of war for my camera. It made sense that we came together to construct a version of war where everyone walked away unscathed. We “played” in this allegorical world where the terrain was a simulation, where good and bad guys easily traded places, and kill shots were logged by the honor system. Most important, I learned what it means to work with your imagination and not from your imagination. It’s not about illustrating an idea or a memory. I am committed to describing life, but I also wanted to riff on it. I see my photographs as road maps where I have described and deployed an array of visual facts that I hope will absorb the viewer on multiple levels. And my wish is that this will ignite some sort of symphonic relational web of ideas and associations. A lot of [the series] Silent General is inspired by current events. I know how I feel but I try not to dictate how it should be for the viewer. I hope to draw the viewer in with well-described facts and details in order to push them to think about what’s beyond the frame.

LT: Silent General is powerful, and brings to mind the rush to monumentalize 9/11, after which many of the victims’ families demanded something be built immediately. Mourning was in a sense displaced by a desperation to replace loss somehow. Your photographs of the Robert E. Lee statues whisper history, an aspect of American history trapped, maybe gagged. Lee shouldn’t be honored, the Old South and slavery shouldn’t be, but I wonder how the Civil War will be taught, and Reconstruction, then Jim Crow, and more horrific discrimination. How and what history is told, how to teach future generations—do monuments do that? I think the Vietnam memorial works, because it focuses on the death of individuals, there’s no glory about that war. What if a plaque on Lee’s statue said Lee fought to support an abominable system that enslaved thousands of Black people? In one of my Madame Realism story/essays, she visits the Normandy beaches. Thousands of soldiers were killed on D-Day. I called the piece “Lust for Loss,” because the death drive Freud theorized does seem a reality. Those soldiers fought to defeat Germany, I revere that ideal, and it was a great turning point in the war. But I also question the effectiveness of monuments.

An-My Lê. Retired Firefighter on 9/11, Brooklyn, New York, from the series Silent General. 2018

An-My Lê. Retired Firefighter on 9/11, Brooklyn, New York, from the series Silent General. 2018

Something draws a person to make an image, or write a story, and it’s probably attached to, even fomented by, a memory, and not one that you clearly remember—a trace maybe.

Lynne Tillman

Lynne Tillman. The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories. 2016

Lynne Tillman. The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories. 2016

AML: I think monuments are necessary because they are meant to tell an important story, but they often fail. They attempt to honor achievements and progress but they are often a demonstration of someone’s dream or delusion of grandeur. They are like follies that end up substantiating ideas about dominion and colonialism. I also think that Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial is exceptional. Maybe because it is a humble gesture that was inspired by failure; diplomatic, military, and geopolitical failure.

Can you talk about working at this intersection where you use real-life facts to rev up your imagination? The premise of Madame Realism is brilliant. It seems to allow you to be a maximalist. You have strong opinions but you also love being a detective. You are making it clear that there is a very fine line between journalism, philosophizing, writing poetry—and maybe it even all starts with gossiping. You are locating ideas, spinning conjectures, but it is based on real things.

LT: I’m struck by your saying, “Memory and imagination are personal and reactive, not unlike the act of photography itself.” When you talk about the act of photography, I’m not thinking about photographs, but about the act of taking up a camera in order to make a photograph. That action—I can understand that it’s about memory and imagination also. Something draws a person to make an image, or write a story, and it’s probably attached to, even fomented by, a memory, and not one that you clearly remember—a trace maybe. Because why does something appeal to you? And the imagination enters, you can see it in your mind, you imagine it before composing the shot, and maybe writing’s like that also. Imagining some possibilities that maybe were once impossible.

Writing through MR gave me space to wander mentally, to set up ideas, opinions, then knock them down; she could express doubts, and then recover from doubt; she could speculate wildly. Fiction allows for that. It felt important to me also to have a character who was female be a maximalist, in your words, and not to be afraid of crossing all kinds of lines and boundaries between disciplines. Facts, I once wrote kind of whimsically, are the enemy of fiction. Facts are not explanatory. They are a basis for interpretations. A fact—it needs understanding. A fact doesn’t provide that. It doesn’t tell you why it happened. And the why is where fiction enters, to suggest possibilities for its having happened, say.

AML: You talk about the premise of wandering mentally in the same breath as setting up ideas and opinions. It’s the prospect of rigor and intuition coexisting that appeals to me. The head and the heart leading the way, well, maybe not at the same time. My version of a maximalist effort is to engage with a polarizing subject matter and not fear embracing all its contradictions. You need to meet the devil halfway. Examining US military forces across vast geopolitical forces and intersecting borders means having to contend with their best intentions and worst blunders. I would like to think that photography does allow one to express affinities but also doubts and contradictions as well. Would you talk more about the significance of MR being female?

LT: I like that—to meet the devil halfway. Younger writers, often women writers, talk to me about my female characters who are cerebral, intellectual, who don’t align with most female characters they’ve read. Rebellious, funny, ironic characters, so Madame Realism maybe does meet the devil halfway. She’s on her own in strange spaces. I might say of her, she models another way, makes her own way. My writing is not all about family and love relationships, and that’s deliberate, it includes how I live, how I want to live, and how I don’t myself live. Other people’s lives come into anything I write. Your work also veers away from so-called traditional female issues and roles.

AML: Growing up, I had been obsessed with the North Vietnamese female warriors. (There were no women in combat in South VN or in the American military at the time.) They were heroicized by North Vietnamese propaganda and they were mythologized in American films like Full Metal Jacket. This got me to do a number of setups with the reenactors around that theme. I also had to use myself in these photographs. I quickly realized that I was this walking, talking, combustible mix of sex and guns for these guys. There was a little black-and-white photograph of me with an AK-47 that was a hot commodity. Newcomers were intimidated that I was the Viêt Công female fighter and glanced at me sideways. The more aggressive ones would sidle up and mutter under their breath, “You are so hot.” MR’s “Imitation of Life” says that disguise uncovers more than it covers. Here, there was nowhere to hide, even behind the camera. Role playing forced me to consider the multiplicity of perspectives. You can be the enemy but also the victim, the aggressor but also the defender. I felt that I could be a Saigon bar girl, the object of desire. At the same time, I was a menace in black pajamas cinched at the waist by a web belt full of hand grenades. It was a messy, confusing, and subversive paradigm that has stayed with me.

In Men and Apparitions, your protagonist, Zeke, studies vernacular photography where authorship is not an urgent issue. Do you think something would be amiss if he had been researching art photographers’ photographs of families instead?

LT: I never thought of doing it that way. It’s interesting, An-My. What would the problems have been? But he’s an ethnographer so he wouldn’t have gone that way, I think. I wanted to focus on vernacular images as part of the family drama, how they see themselves, what they want to remember. It’s an aspect of family life or was; it’s changed with the iPhone—so many millions taken, then deleted. The lack of authorship, in all ways they are anonymous to anyone but them and their families, and in the novel, when Zeke comes upon two bags of family photographs in a junk store, for sale, he finds that very disturbing. He feels the family itself had been thrown away or abandoned.

AML: It is so poignant that Zeke thinks he can pathologize these families but at the same time we get the opportunity to study him and his behavior and play pop psychologist. Do you think the drive to be right is dangerous?

Lynne Tillman. Men and Apparitions: A Novel. 2018

Lynne Tillman. Men and Apparitions: A Novel. 2018

An-My Lê. Hồ Chí Minh City, Sống Design Office Kitchen, from the series Delta. 2011

An-My Lê. Hồ Chí Minh City, Sống Design Office Kitchen, from the series Delta. 2011

LT: Dangerous if you wield the power and can dictate your POV. With friends, in families, arguments about who is right, who is the wounded party, who should apologize, terrible. People mostly hate apologizing. I don’t want to feel the need to defend myself, to be defensive, and that it’s OK to be wrong. I wish I understood the need better because “having to be right” does not serve evolution. It’s not helpful. Wars seem to be based on it, my country right or wrong, my ego.

You don’t photograph your family. You travel far away from that kind of work. But in your Hồ Chí Minh City, Sống Design Office Kitchen there’s something about your shooting the familiar. Maybe not familiar in the sense you lived it with your family, but I look at the photographs, and wonder if you feel close to the people in them. Also, you haven’t, to my knowledge, pictured people like this before—in domestic settings, with the people looking at the camera.

AML: You’re right. It’s hard for me to imagine that the specificity of my family would be interesting to anyone. It has been more meaningful to find ways to describe the notion of home. I recognized something important I could not put into words when I walked into that kitchen and decided to photograph it. I think it was the portrait of the young Northern Vietnamese woman with her hair wrapped in a black velvet turban, a hairstyle my grandmother kept on wearing for many years when she was living in France and in the US. It is modern but also traditional; or maybe it was the promise of a pot of jasmine tea accompanied by clusters of sweet longans that made me feel I had arrived home. I felt complete and secure in that space and tried to describe it so. I felt similar flashes of connection with the women I photographed in this series. They were complete strangers, but I was seduced by their vitality and seeming innocence, or maybe it is their resilience.

Do you think that still images can suggest narratives in the true sense that written fiction can?

LT: Suggest, yes, some photographs do that deliberately. There can be elements in them that seem to will a viewer to imagine a story. Your photographs have always fascinated me, for one, because of the stillness of the compositions. They have a mystery to them. I feel that they propose a question: What’s behind the curtain? What’s behind this scene? Photographs are of course still, but yours feel caught in time. Then again, contemporary photographers have for a long time promoted the fiction of a photograph: it’s a surface, what you see isn’t a story, and a photograph can’t tell you anything. Still, viewers project into images, furnish a story, one that may have nothing to do with the picture. In this way, all photographs are highly psychological objects.

Do you want to have your photographs tell stories? What do you want for your photographs? What should we see in them?

AML: I’m not sure I want my photographs to tell stories, per se. Just like with fiction stories, where you want your reader to stay interested and keep on reading until the end, I want my photographs to hold the viewer’s attention and engage them. But like with great literature, it is not the drive of spellbinding story itself that matters most but it is the lingering intellectual impact that stays with you when you get to the end. What was that about? How does this make me feel? How does this add to my understanding of human existence? Don’t you love how photographs can be evidentiary but at the same time open ended? We rely on this fragile construct between the objective and subjective.

LT: In writing fiction, I try to understand that relationship, between subjectivity and so-called reality, to question points of view, attitudes, how events of all kinds affect your sense of the world, subtly I hope. The poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.” I think that’s mostly true. It certainly represents modernist thinking, form and content, but I’m not sure. Sometimes what you say can’t be assuaged by how you say it.

An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières is on view at MoMA November 5, 2023–March 16, 2024.