In the midst of the jungle, focused children attend to instruction in an itinerant classroom. In a wetland field, women in ascetic uniforms jeté with balletic grace. The paradisal world in Võ An Khánh’s photographs, on view in his solo exhibition titled “Masked Force,” offers a glimpse into the daily operations of the Communist resistance during the Vietnam War. Originally a technician of a photography lab, Võ joined the Northern Vietnamese Communist Army in 1960, working over a decade for its Office of Entertainment. Traveling the mangrove forests of the Mekong Delta with a medium-format Yashica camera, he photographed the people of the guerrilla force—its builders and nurses, farmers and dancers, students and teachers. He developed the negatives in situ and stored them in ammunition boxes with rice for moisture absorption. As each film cartridge contained only eight exposures, Võ composed every shot carefully, producing immaculate, auteurish compositions that shine with cinematic intensity. In one image, medics, knee-deep in swamp water, perform shrapnel-removal surgery in a makeshift operating room fashioned from mosquito netting. The photograph exudes a wartime surrealism that Hollywood studios spend fortunes attempting to contrive.
True to the show’s title, masked figures abound in the photographs. What may seem like an ominous disguise was in fact a protective measure to conceal one’s identity in the event of imprisonment and interrogation. Faces aren’t the only uncapturable aspects of these mythic images: Indoors or outdoors, work or leisure, private or shared, these boundaries slip through one’s grasp. In Lý Tự Trọng schoolchildren on a summer day on Khai Long beach, Cà Mau, 1968, a cohort of young boys crawl through wet sand, exuberant smiles bursting across their faces. Is this a game or a drill, child’s play or a rehearsal for revolution? Võ’s photographs eschew these distinctions, instead emphasizing the immense imagination in collective struggle.