Hà Nội 1967 - 1975
November 15, 2020
October 3, 2020
The Goethe Institut, Camera Work, Nhã Nam Publisher and Manzi Art Space are pleased to present an extraordinary photo exhibition featuring Hanoi in the period of 1967 to 1975 by world-renowned German photographer Thomas Billhardt.
Consisting of 130 black & white and colour photos taken during Thomas Billhardt's trips to Vietnam, the exhibition presents viewers an honest documentary of Hanoi from 1967 to 1975, minute by quotidian minute, sincere and unadorned.
‘Hanoi 1967- 1975’ through the lens of Thomas is the joyful moment of welcoming a child born in the wartime, the captured American pilots in the camps, the crowds bicycling in the rains, the outdoor drawing classes with barefooted pupils, the innocent happy faces of children, the iconic stadium with football crowds lost in passionate cheers… All these visual notes make a symphony about life steeped in hardship but brimming with care and love.
‘Thomas’s photos held up a mirror to the world while at the same time strengthening hope. They tell of the world’s social inequalities, of poverty, of suffering, of war, but also of the life and laughter of the people who live in it’ – says Wilfried Eckstein, Director of the Goethe Institut.
‘Hanoi 1967- 1975’ by Thomas carves out its own realm of memory where Hanoi appears in all its various expressions of this time.
The exhibition open from 3rd Oct. to 15 Nov. 2020 at both spaces of Manzi: 02 Ngõ Hàng Bún and 14 Phan Huy Ích, Ba Đình, Hanoi. A photo book 'Hà Nội 1967-1975' published by the Goethe Institut and Nha Nam Publishing House will be launched during the exhibition with a series of talks and film screenings.
Thomas Billhardt was one of the GDR’s most extraordinary photographers. In the late 1960s, his shots of the Vietnam War earned him worldwide fame. He was the first to capture the horrors of this war on camera, especially in his photographs of children’s faces.
His photographic art was created and spread in a time before digital overload. His photos were unforgettable, images that would linger before the viewer’s inner eye. They held up a mirror to the world while at the same time holding out hope. They tell of the world’s social inequalities, of poverty, of suffering, of war, but also of the life and laughter of the people who live in it.
In his photography, Thomas Billhardt expressed suffering through the iconography of big, expressive children’s eyes. His style stirred empathy and solidarity across national borders. As a news photographer, he travelled on behalf of GDR government authorities, agencies, publishing houses, and UNICEF. He documented the hot spots of world events such as Vietnam, travelling to Bangladesh, China, Chile, Guinea, Indonesia, Cambodia, Lebanon, Mozambique, the Middle East, Nicaragua, and the Philippines.
His first long-distance trip took him to revolutionary Cuba in 1961. “That trip,” he says, “was a turning point in my life. I was not indifferent to the experience and fascination of the revolutionary movement. I got to know two sides of society.”
The countries he visited most often were the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Italy. Between 1962 and 1985, he visited the Soviet Union over fifty times and Italy more than twenty times. He was fascinated by social contradictions expressed in the faces of the people he saw:
“I experienced human joy and suffering, whether it was on the natural gas fields of the former USSR or on the front lines in Vietnam.” (Thomas Billhardt)
Thomas Billhardt, born in 1937, grew up in Chemnitz, which was called Karl-Marx-Stadt during the GDR era. One of the enduring impressions of his childhood was the smell of developer and fixing bath chemicals in his parents’ home. His mother Maria Schmid-Billhardt was a freelance photographer who had her own studio. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to her and some fellow photographers, including the founder of the GDR’s first color lab. In addition to attending vocational school, which is part of apprenticeship programs in Germany, his mother also arranged additional private lessons for him in mathematics, German, English, P.E. (tennis), History, Art History, and Painting. With this thorough education, especially his rich knowledge of art history and painting, he immediately passed the entrance examination for the Academy of Applied Arts in Magdeburg, which he attended from 1954 to 1957. In the Großkayna lignite mining area, he got to know the dark side of his profession – documenting work accidents that involved casualties with serious or even fatal injuries. From 1958 – 1963, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig, graduating with a degree as photographer / photo designer. Until 1971, he worked as a freelance photographer. From 1972 to 1981, he headed a work group at the German Advertising Agency (DEWAG) Berlin, and from 1982 to 1989 he was head of Billhardt studio. Since 1989, Thomas Billhardt has been a member of the German Association of Journalists and since 1990, a member of the Association of Freelance Photo Designers, which also made him an honorary member in 2019. He gained renown through his publications in magazines and exhibitions in many countries. The exhibition accompanying this photobook is his third exhibition in Vietnam, followed by an exhibition in 1972, and a show for the film project “Iced lemonade for Hong Li” in the year 2000 at the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc.
In 1967, Thomas Billhardt travelled to Hanoi for the first time via Moscow, Irkutsk, Beijing, and Nanning. At the time, he was a freelancer for the independent documentary film studio Heynowski & Scheumann. His mission was to make an interview-based documentary film about US-American pilots who had been shot down and captured. For the 1968 film “Pilots in Pajamas”, Thomas Billhardt did the exterior shots. The pictures he took on this trip appeared internationally in the American magazine ‘Life’, in the French ‘Paris Match’, in the West German magazines ‘Stern’ and ‘Spiegel’, and many other magazines. This trip and a follow-up trip to Vietnam resulted in the first traveling exhibition about the war in Vietnam, which was shown in 1969 in the GDR, the Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden, and Moscow. His first illustrated book about Vietnam was published in Leipzig in 1973.
Thomas Billhardt traveled to the war-ravaged country six times between 1962 and 1975 and has returned to it six more times since then. The photographs taken during these trips have been published in four illustrated books. “Pilots in Pajamas” (1968), “Longing for Peace: Vietnam” (1973), “Hanoi on the Eve of Peace” (1973) and “Faces of Vietnam” (1978).
Thomas Billhardt describes his pictures as ‘honest’, thus underscoring his independence as an artist who seeks the bare, unbiased view of things. When he hits the shutter button on his camera, the things in front of his lens must be worth capturing, not only because back in the day, negative film was expensive and it took a either lot of money or good connections to get one’s hands on the higher-quality, Western Kodak products, but also because he didn’t work in a studio like his mother, but out in the field, in public spaces. What he tried to capture was irreproducible moments, authentic, sincere images, like a beautiful face in a bleak world, innocent laughter in a harsh, threatening environment, an idyllic everyday moment that makes us forget about fear and war and gives us hope for peaceful normalcy.
Thomas Billhardt hails from an era and a world where the demands of privacy require discreteness and respect for the integrity of the individual. However, he could only create compelling photography if he managed to capture private moments, in other words, if he was able to steal a glimpse of this very privacy.
As a photographer, he seeks the unadulterated moment, people’s faces before they realize they are about to be captured on film. It is about the moment before they react and try to control their appearance. Capturing this instant, immortalizing people in their candid uniqueness, is what creates the intimacy and warmth of his photographs that stirs empathy in their viewers – for example, with the people of Vietnam.
Taking an honest picture is not easy. Today, we pose incessantly in front of cell phone cameras. We post our likenesses on social media, with certain gestures and fake smiles, gleaning ‘likes’ from our followers near and far. But even before the digital age, it was not easy to take a candid shot of a person, because whenever we see a camera, it is our reflex to assume a certain posture, pose, or try to dodge the picture.
Thomas Billhardt developed his own unique technique. In public spaces, he used a telephoto lens to get close enough to people, whom he took out of the slogan-ridden socialist reality of the GDR, searching for personalities, moods, and individuality. Another approach was his ‘angle trick’, his technique of photographing around corners. He would hold his reflex camera at eye level, with his eye firmly on the viewfinder, but the lens pointed to the side, which meant he saw everything upside down and reversed in the viewfinder. Over time, he had trained his eye so well that he did even not notice the inversion anymore and was able to find his subject immediately. “I would stalk my ‘victims’ like a wolf, calculate the best exposure time, and estimate the distance so I could pre-set those elements. Then came the moment of deception. When I lifted the camera, I only looked at the screen and could push the shutter button unnoticed. That’s how I captured the actual scene.”
After German reunification, people wondered if Thomas Billhardt was a mere state-sponsored artist and how to appraise his success in the authoritarian regime of the GDR in retrospect. He travelled on behalf of state-controlled publishing houses, at the invitation of cultural institutions, but also often on his own initiative. His photographs adorned many state propaganda publications. He was awarded national art prizes. – To live and survive, he had to make many compromises within the rigid framework of a surveillance state.
It is true, of course, that Thomas Billhardt supplied the system he lived in with the images it needed. But this was the only way he could survive as an artist, and many independent artists in liberal states and capitalist exploitation contexts are actually in the same boat; they too, must deliver what their system demands. Otherwise, they are doomed to a life of insignificance and rob themselves of any chance to make and impact or communicate a message. Their contributions and critical reflections also make enable their audience to keep going. Structural violence, whether it be greed or political leadership, can only be overcome by cunning resourcefulness or by escaping into niches of freedom. We have already addressed Billhardt’s resourcefulness. Let’s also remember that art always needs free space. For Tomas Billhardt, this was the FDJ student magazine FORUM for a while, then his cooperation with the independent film studio Heynowski & Scheumann. It was this kind of freedom that helped his great work excel. It enabled him to maintain his independence and refine his experience of the world and thus his artistic work. This explains why he virtually skyrocketed in his politically rigid environment as an innovative upstart. Of course, he was often subject to distrust while being officially admired. Time and again, he had to convince doubters through quality and originality. His hard-won success proved him right. Wherever he went, he found himself in a paradox. Was he a revolutionary reporter like Capa? Hardly. He came from a middle-class background, his mother’s private studio. He was raised to be a diligent worker and an educated mind. He did not seek adventure in order to escape his middle-class environment. He wanted to get to the bottom of things and share his insights with the world; his objective was the happy smile of a child.
Thomas Billhardt remained true to himself throughout his life. He is a sharply alert, critical explorer of poverty and crisis spots around the world. Children have always been his ambassadors. The fact that his art is political, yet not simplistic, has made him a star in the Western art and photography scene. Since 1999, Thomas Billhardt's work has been exhibited at the renowned photo art gallery CAMERA WORK and has been shown in many locations around the globe.
Director, Goethe Institut Vietnam