FotoFest Exhibitions

An-My Lê

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Triggered by the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to world security, the United States launched wars in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, and in Iraq on March 20, 2003. The United States has embedded photojournalists with military forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but much of the imagery that is released by the media is censored and sanitized by a government hoping to control the story and by editors with political concerns. Although An-My Lê’s petition to be an embedded photographer in Iraq was denied, in 2003 she was granted permission to photograph U.S. troops performing training exercises in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The series 29 Palms (2003-2004) takes its name from the Marine base in Southern California’s Mojave Desert where Lê photographed American soldiers both rehearsing their own roles and playing the parts of their adversaries. They were occasionally asked to dress up and act as Iraqi police and civilians, and sometimes linguists wearing traditional Iraqi clothing were brought in to create verbal confusion in Arabic. The military housing was tagged with mock anti-American graffiti, and fake villages had been built of particleboard. Lê’s pictures from 29 Palms in many ways subversively mirror the media’s sanitized view of the two wars. They present no blood, no gore, no cruelty, no shock. They simply show the preparations for battle. Mountains and desert dominate the series, their vastness making the elements of war appear small and toylike. Soldiers almost disappear into the landscape, and Lê’s work rarely shows us their faces or provides hints of their emotional states or dispositions.

An-My Lê was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1960 and came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee. She holds a B.A.S. (1981) and M.S. (1985) from Stanford University, Stanford, California and a M.F.A. from Yale University School of Art, Yale University School of Art (1993). Recent solo exhibitions of her work include 29 Palms at Murray Guy, New York; Small Wars at PS1/MOMA Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York; and Vietnam at Scott Nichols Gallery, San Francisco. She is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship (1997), and her work is held in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; and Sackler Gallery, The Smithsonian, Washington DC.