This exhibition shares the stories of over 40 veterans, including 12 West Australians through contemporary photographs and interviews by Susan Gordon Brown.
Behind The Wire: Images and Stories of Vietnam Veterans. Photos: Susan Gordon Brown.
7 August – 27 September 2015
Politically and socially, the Vietnam War cut a wide swathe through Australian society and especially through the lives and families of those who served.
The photographs of official war photographers, photojournalists and the personal photographic records of soldiers, provide an important account of this time. Vietnam, with its reputation as the “television war” saw the rise of the assertion of the ‘the public’s right to know’ where debates around the photograph fueled global politics.
Perhaps the most famous personal photographic records are those of soldier Andy Mattay and his Kodak Instamatic documentation of the 7RAR , a photographic collection held by the National War Memorial.
We know all to well that a photo only ever captures part of a story. Experiences of war and conflict are not limited to the battlefront. So too, the need to document and capture the history of the Vietnam War is ongoing as previously untold stories come to the fore. It is important that the stories both the the war and its aftermath are told.
The American unit that I’d worked with closely gave me a farewell party the day before I flew out of Vietnam. I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t want to go home. In hindsight, the war was a great waste of life and money, but I wouldn’t have missed it for quids.
HQ AFV Kevin Graham b.1936
Ammunition Technical Officer
September 1968 – March 1969
Photo: Susan Gordon Brown
Behind the Wire presents the everyday, personal stories of veterans through portraiture and oral history extracts. To quote journalist and writer Alan Attwood, “They have a shared history as Vietnam veterans. But each story, each face, each perspective is different”.
“When you returned to Australia you stepped out of a very surreal environment. The experience there was one of wondering: will I be alive tomorrow? Re-establishing the old values was probably the hardest thing to do. It’s almost as if you were between reality and fantasy” Glenn Darlington b.1946 I Gunner Signalman I Nui Dat I June 1968 – March 1969
Photo: Susan Gordon Brown
This is one of the reasons why Susan Gordon Brown’s work through Behind the Wire is significant. It highlights that the history of the war is a living history, very present in the memories of veterans, their families and friends. The oral history excerpts featured in the exhibition capture personal perspectives, unrepresented in official sources or history books. It is important to recognise these stories and equally important to collect and preserve them.
“Maybe it dawned on me – one minute I was flying around in a helicopter doing God knows what; then I was going back to work.”
HQ AFV, AATTV
John Riley b.1946 Medic Saigon, Baria January 1970 – December 1970, Photo: Susan Gordon Brown
The Library holds many items from World War I within its heritage collections – diaries, letters, and photographs. They belonged to West Australians who served in World War I or who remained here in Western Australia on the home front. Items of this nature are essential to keep these important stories alive for generations to come.
Collection of such material both honours the individuals or organisations concerned, but also provides the building blocks for researchers and historians, both amateur and professional.
The same is true for the history of the Vietnam War. Without material such as that which libraries like the State Library collects – oral, photographic, written – a representative account of the war and its aftermath and the personal experiences of people affected by it will not be available for posterity.
Behind the Wire: Images and Stories of Vietnam Veterans is on display in the ground floor gallery until September 27 2015. For more information visit: www.slwa.wa.gov.au
- Information on donating heritage material to the Library’s collection
- Explore Bill Bunbury’s interview series on the Vietnam war for the radio series‘Within our time’, held within the Library’s collection