The Big Issue : Edition 472
THEBIGISSUE21NOV–4DEC2014 25 War Peace IN 2007, SUSAN Gordon-Brown travelled to Vietnam for a holiday. It was her first time there. She was captivated by the country, but also realised she wanted to learn more about Australians’ involvement in the war there four decades earlier. But it wasn’t until 2011 that things started happening. The Melbourne-based photographer was helping out with an exhibition about the 1916 battle of Fromelles, on the Western Front. It was being staged at a local RSL branch, where she met Brian Tateson, a Vietnam veteran. Gordon- Brown had recently completed Down South, a photographic exhibition about Australian tradesmen in Antarctica. She was on the lookout for a new project, so a little later asked Tateson if he and any of his fellow vets would be interested in chatting to her and posing for her camera. She envisaged it as a small-scale, Melbourne-based exercise. Then it grew, and grew...all over the country. “The more people I met, the more I started to feel I should meet – to cover the various jobs, different locations in Vietnam and also to include Army, Navy and Airforce,” Gordon-Brown recalls. Three years later, Behind the Wire was completed. The exhibition, and accompanying book, was launched in Longreach, Queensland. This month – the month of Remembrance Day, a time of reflection – it is on show at the Currumbin RSL on the Gold Coast. Gordon-Brown has assembled portraits of a diverse group of people unified by their history. Many were still in their twenties in Vietnam. They experienced too much, too early. Her interviews also represent a revealing oral history of a controversial period in Australian history. She has allowed her 50 subjects to speak for themselves. They talk about first impressions: “The first things I saw in Vietnam were the transport buses for the army. They had caged windows so that the grenades couldn’t be thrown through, and I was thinking: How often does that happen? Where am I?” (Ted Haddrick, pictured left) They talk about a sense of loss: “I carry a list of all the people who died on the tour with me at all times. If I leave the house, my notebook comes with me.” (‘Tassie’ Wass) And, all too often, they talk about the toll of what they endured: “Later in life it hits you. It affects career paths. It took about 30 years before I realised I needed some help.” (Jim Archbold) She has also acknowledged the contribution of women and volunteers who worked in combat zones and later encountered insufficient acknowledgement of their service. Helen Taplin, a civilian nurse, told her: “I started writing letters to the government, trying to get acknowledgment that we were Vietnam vets. We felt it was time that we were recognised. You’ve just got to keep fighting. And I will.” Gordon-Brown’s empathy with her subjects is obvious. And when asked for the most striking feature of the vets she met she responds with just one word: pride. by Alan Attwood » For more information, go to behindthewire.com.au; also susangordonbrown.com.au. and PAST AND PRESENT COME TOGETHER IN A PROJECT FOCUSED ON VIETNAM VETERANS.