Witness for Justice

Seeing what is before our eyes.

Burning trees to make charcoal is one of the few ways for country people to amke cash in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

What prevents us, those of us whose eyes work, from seeing what is before our eyes? When I arrived in Vietnam in 1967, I could see that we were murdering the Vietnamese. Not to notice that we were murdering the Vietnamese took a lot of “not seeing,” but many refused the evidence of their senses. Sgt. Ronald L. Haeberle, who took the famous color pictures of the My Lai massacre published in Life magazine, said, “… is that a part of war? I mean, it may be the first time you see something like that, and what are you going to think?” What we must think, if we believe in a universal morality, is that murder is murder. The problem with truly seeing the world is that the mind is forced into a process of constant re-evaluation. If one stops seeing and instead thinks in terms of categories, information that nullifies the categories is apt to be discarded, particularly if the categories form the basis of one’s sense of identity.

One night in Vietnam after too many beers, I got into a debate with a fellow soldier about what orders must be disobeyed. He took the “my country right or wrong” position, so I asked him what he would have done had he been born in Germany in 1920. As a young man, he would have joined the Nazi army, since that was the German army at the time, given his “any government with a quasi-legal mandate right or wrong” attitude. He said it was the duty of a citizen to follow the orders of the constituted authority. I fired my last rhetorical big gun: “What if your mother was Jewish? Would you have kept silent if you heard she was to be arrested?” Without a blink, he replied he would not have interfered, that “right is the will of the stronger,” and he wanted to be with the stronger. There he was, the perfect soldier. The alternative was too troubling. If there is a morality that supersedes legality, nationalism, and narrow religious doctrine, each person must be responsible for their own actions all of the time.

Witness For Justice

How are we, as a country and a culture, any different than that drunken GI?

Some of my fellow soldiers were so fed up that they gathered their maps, compasses, and Benzedrine and headed for Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with the hope that a Swedish tanker would give them asylum. My hope is that they are safe somewhere today. I decided to stick it out as a medic. I had started taking photographs, and I wanted to become better with a camera, as seeing well and recording that sight seemed more important than verbal explanations. I had been a varsity debater in high school, but that had not saved me from serving in Vietnam as a soldier in an imperialistic army. Logical thinking can be no better than its premise. I now had a new premise based on seeing clearly. The goal of my work is to drive vision past people’s categorical thinking. My faith is that every person is essentially a moral entity, underneath whatever bogus ideology and short-term personal advantage they believe in.

True documentary photography battles with advertising photography and the dominant cultural aesthetic. Contrived photography, as commercial propaganda and as entertainment, rules in the marketplace and museums. Shock and fantasy, sex and violence, nostalgia for a world that never existed, and an idealized nature in which no one lives, fetishizing people as exotic specimens of “the other,” these genres sell and are shown as art. Documentary photography that explicates our shared human condition challenges the status quo. It demands social action that affirms community values over private profit.

This collection of photographs is a testament to those who have tried and are trying to engage us, increase our understanding and help us organize ourselves for a more human life. War is not natural, not inevitable.

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Alan Pogue was born in Corpus Christi in 1946. After volunteering for a tour of duty in Vietnam, he saw the world in a different light and has been giving us his photographic vision of humanity ever since. He has lived in Austin since 1969. His book Witness for Justice (University of Texas Press) was published this month.

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Published at 12:00 am CST