‘History Doesn’t Move in a Straight Line’: Photographer An-My Lê on How Pictures Can Help Us Keep Up With a Rapidly Changing World

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Though the earliest photographs
from An-My Lê’s ongoing body of work “
Silent General” were taken in 2016 and ‘17, they’re hard to
distinguish from the images filling TV screens and Twitter feeds
today: packed protests, fallen monuments, anti-Trump
graffiti. 

“It’s eerie to see how some of
the issues that unfolded when I started ‘
Silent General’ are now back at the forefront in an even more
urgent way,” the Vietnam-born, New York-based photographer tells
Artnet News. “History doesn’t move through time in a straight
line.”

When we first met over video
chat a couple weeks ago, the plan was to discuss Lê’s first career
survey, “
On Contested
Terrain
,” which is at
the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (but is currently closed).
But as the conversation spilled over into emails about Lê’s efforts
to document the ongoing protests, it was “
Silent General,” her latest project, named after a Walt
Whitman phrase, that emerged as the focus. 

One of the MacArthur “genius”
grant-winning artist’s first pictures in the series depicts two
confederate statues inside a quiet, ad-hoc shed in New Orleans.
Rather than training her lens on the monuments’ removal, she
focuses instead on their afterlife out of public view, the part no
one looks at, or even thinks to.

This is signature Lê. Whether
she’s photographing naval officers atop globe-spanning vessels,
Vietnam War re-enactors in the American south, or Marines prepping
for the Iraq War in the barren California desert, she zooms out to
show the complex contexts of conflict. And she does so without
judgement or admonition. 

“Her nuanced and subtle
photographs provide visual and emotional space for viewers, and
pose important and timely questions,” says Dan Leers, curator of
photography at the Carnegie Museum of Art, who organized Lê’s show
there. “Is it our nature to be in conflict? How does the landscape
record collective trauma? And what is the status of photographic
truth in an age of alternative facts?”

“Lê’s absorbing images withhold
easy answers,” he adds, “but we do find some possible paths
forward.”

The title “Silent General” is taken from
Walt Whitman’s book Specimen Days and Collect and is a
reference to his description of Ulysses S. Grant. Your series, like
Whitman’s book, is divided into “fragments.”  Where did you
come across that text, and what about its structure attracted
you? 

I’m not sure how I found it, but
during trips made to photograph the confederate monuments I was
always asking myself the question: What I am doing here? Especially
when working alongside journalists. I am always interested in
artists who work with topical, political issues and am curious
about the ones whose approach provides a distinct perspective. I
think of Errol Morris using reenactments in his documentaries. So,
Whitman is an obvious choice because of the subject of the Civil
War, the monuments, the democratic experience, and so on. It’s
because Whitman, who was a newspaper man, transcends the
journalistic and chronicling impulses in the work. Specimen
Days
was written late in his life and the section on the Civil
War was based on his notes and sketches—it’s a kind of report of
his experiences during the Civil War. But, in fact, they are
reminiscences that are carefully crafted as part of a larger
autobiographical tour de force. Throughout the work, he weaves his
own experiences alongside major events to give his life relevance
within the sweep of history and the establishment of democracy. As
artists, I think we all want to be relevant. 

Specimen Days is
written in prose and it’s very specific and descriptive, but it’s
also very lyrical and poetic. As a photographer I am always
thinking about how to transform the barrage of searing descriptions
my camera will record of the world into a final object that is more
elusive and, hopefully, lyrical. I was inspired by the way
Specimen Days is comprised of a series “essays,” which
Whitman calls fragments. If you look at the different fragments,
they seem disjointed at times—he can go from something very
personal to something much less personal. He spoke about his stroke
and his connection to the landscape in both an intimate way and a
political one too. His meditations on the connections between
geography, geology, and human history all made sense to me. I saw
the fragments in the way one puts words together to form
sentences.

An-My Lê, <i>Fragment VII: High School Students Protesting Gun Violence, Washington Square Park, New York</i> (2018). Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. ©2020 An-My Lê.

An-My Lê, Fragment VII: High School
Students Protesting Gun Violence, Washington Square Park, New
York
(2018). Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.
©2020 An-My Lê.

That phrase, “Silent General,” is pregnant with potential
meanings. Does it represent anything in particular to
you? 

I love the fact that Grant was
an average man; you would not think of him as someone who would
distinguish himself. I have always been interested in the idea of a
somewhat average guy who surpasses expectations and goes on to
really make a difference.

Those two words really leapt off
the page when I first came across them. Together, the idea of
silence and, not the ranking commander, but the notion of
generalization, resonated with the deeper themes I’ve been
interested in. There is a juggling act between the two ideas that
can be edifying.
Photography
is a kind of silence that is not silent. While the medium is all
about depicting specificities, these depictions can convey trite
generalizations which are not necessarily better than
silence.
In a way, the title
encapsulates the struggle in the fight against generalization and
simplification. I feel a great kinship for Specimen Days
and for the work of any artist who is interested in approaching a
political moment in ways that exemplify not just a subjectivity but
also a crystalizing specificity that I believe is very different
from rhetoric or propaganda.

In the past, you’ve said that you’re drawn to “worlds that
are complete, inclusive, and integral while not necessarily without
conflicts.” As a result, your bodies of work have felt contained,
in a sense. Perhaps because of the nature of the project,
Silent General” feels wider in scope, even a little
more abstract. At what stage are you in with this series? Is there
an end in sight?

Trying to figure out when a
project is finished is a big deal. At a certain point things become
repetitive. I never thought of this before. Previous projects maybe
had a second-person point of view. “
Silent General,” like Whitman in Specimen Days, is
more about my struggles as an author in the contemporary world. The
work is not about me but it is about allowing my feelings,
curiosities, and failures to be more present. 

An-My Lê, <i>Fragment VIII: Cars along the Rio Grande at the US-Mexico Border, Ojinaga, Mexico</i> (2019). Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. ©2020 An-My Lê.

An-My Lê, Fragment VIII: Cars along
the Rio Grande at the US-Mexico Border, Ojinaga, Mexico
(2019).
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. ©2020 An-My
Lê.

I appreciate the fact that the
subject was clearly defined in the past. [My series]
Small Wars”
was about the Vietnam war
re-enactors; “
29
Palms”
was confined to the
Marine corps training base in California; “
Events Ashore” was spread out over the world, but it was all
about the US Navy. I knew where my work laid. What I have now takes
place wholly in the US, but it is undefined, more organic, and, you
are right, abstract. For me, it’s new and challenging and feels
appropriate. 

I didn’t quite appreciate the
nature of this new work until about a year or a year and a half
into it, when I realized that it was really an American road trip.
I felt that I needed to do it, and I felt ready for it. I certainly
don’t think I could have done it previous to the other projects.
Since then, much of the work has been done in response to the
anxiety and helplessness that I feel. So, I think as long as
there’s a need to answer, to respond, I will
continue. 

You said you didn’t feel ready for an American road trip
series until now. Other than the larger political climate, what,
for you, has changed?

I certainly don’t sit down and
decide that I need to do this or that because I feel that the voice
of a woman, mother, or immigrant needs to be heard. Sometimes one’s
own story becomes a catalyst for the work. The idea of the road
trip came from my education as an artist and from a more
self-conscious look back at the questions that came to me as a grad
student. I was encouraged to look at my identity back
then. 

I don’t believe the road trip
describes a method of making art. Within photography, the term road
trip came to stand like a literary mode. It is a shorthand for a
literary, flowing project that is not pre-conceived. It means going
out to see the world. It involves crossing borders, moving between
conservative and outsider spheres. It’s about others but also about
being another. Most importantly for me this is an opportunity to
engage with a fully present, participating landscape, a landscape
that transcends the social, political, cultural
moment. 

An-My Lê, <i>Fragment VIII: US Customs and Border Protection Officer, Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge, Presidio, Texas</i> (2019). Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. ©2020 An-My Lê.

An-My Lê, Fragment VIII: US Customs
and Border Protection Officer, Presidio-Ojinaga International
Bridge, Presidio, Texas
(2019). Courtesy of the artist and
Marian Goodman Gallery. ©2020 An-My Lê.

You’ve described yourself as a landscape photographer first
and foremost and said that, despite all the political and cultural
change you’ve witnessed throughout your life—both in Vietnam and
America—the landscape has remained the one constant. Today, we
don’t think of the landscape as a “constant”; it’s fraught with the
possibility of change, depletion, destruction. How has your
relationship to the landscape changed throughout your
career? 

My return to Vietnam in the
mid-1990s was an extraordinary experience. There were some
landscapes that I knew, but not many. When I was growing up, it was
difficult to leave the safety of the city to go out and explore the
land because of the fighting. And I certainly didn’t know the
northern landscapes because the country was already separated when
I was born. And yet, despite years of warfare, somehow there was a
kind of familiarity that I was able to connect to when I returned
and experienced the northern landscapes for the first time.

There is a sense of the layering of
history in the landscape, visible or not, that is ever-present. I
do believe that landscape, in all its manifestations, is
ever-powerful. It transcends politics and will prevail.

In my work, I am constantly
casting and recasting the landscape. It is a force of nature:
mercurial, volatile; it is my muse. The landscape can deliver
cliché after cliché, but it always surprises me. If it does not
represent a threat, then it’s about scale, like David and Goliath.
I’ve always been fascinated in the relationship of one smaller
thing to something larger. I’m also interested in labor and
the way labor or any kind of human intervention marks up the
landscape. 

Whitman’s text is not very political, despite the backdrop of
the war—he doesn’t “take a side,” so to speak. Similarly, the
Silent General” pictures—like most of your
photos—don’t take a side. Why is that lack of judgement or moral
bias important to you?

Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s
completely lacking in bias. I’m photographing laborers and border
guards after all. But I hate being told what to think and how to
feel. My approach is also a reaction to the rhetoric—the
slogan-filled and simplified language and approach to social and
economic issues during the presidential debates in 2015 and
’16. 

An-My Lê, <i>Fragment I: Film Set (Free State of Jones), Battle of Corinth, Bush, Louisiana</i> (2015). Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. ©2020 An-My Lê.

An-My Lê, Fragment I: Film Set (Free
State of Jones), Battle of Corinth, Bush, Louisiana
(2015).
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. ©2020 An-My
Lê.

I think some of the pictures are
hopeful. If you look at them, it’s not about position taking. This
is something I’ve learned before, from traveling and from being
with the military. It’s very humbling to meet people who have
completely different perspectives than you. Traveling for
Events Ashore”
was a particularly rousing
experience. What does it mean to not be able to find a job and
having to join the military? What does it mean to give up your
rights to make decisions because you will follow whatever the
command decides or whatever American foreign policy dictates? What
does it mean, as a woman, to be on a ship and try to perform a job
in what was, until recently, a male dominated world and retain your
identity as a woman while showing competency and professionalism?
That experience made me realize that the world is far more nuanced
and subtle than we often make it seem to be.

Many of the issues that inspired “Silent
General”
—the removal of monuments, the racial divide in
America, and so on—are again playing out on the national stage.
Indeed, the earliest pictures in the
series
 look eerily similar to what’s in
the news right now. What does that say to you?

When I started showing the early
iterations of “
Silent
General”
a couple years ago,
I spoke about how I felt that war had come to the home front. That
was my impetus for taking this road trip through America. Little
did I know what would hit us this year. War and chaos really have
come to our doorstep. It’s eerie to see how some of the issues that
unfolded when I started “Silent General” are now back at the
forefront in an even more urgent way. History doesn’t move through
time in a straight line. 

The post ‘History Doesn’t Move in a Straight Line’:
Photographer An-My Lê on How Pictures Can Help Us Keep Up With a
Rapidly Changing World
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