The Story Behind the Vietnam Photos
by James Speed Hensinger
The soundtrack for the photos is: "Electric Blend" from Sandy Bull's 1969 Vanguard album "E Pluribus Unum," Side B
The song, "A Picture From The War" was written and performed by Julian Saporiti. He was serendipitously inspired by my photos to write this haunting piece.
Over the course of about two weeks in April 1970, I shot several rolls of Kodak Ektachrome slide film (ASA 64) time exposures using a cable release and resting the camera on sandbags in one of our compound's guard towers. I used a 35mm Nikon FTN with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. Most of the exposures were from 15 seconds to one minute in duration.
I was an enlisted man in the 173rd Airborne Brigade and not an Army photographer. The camera equipment and film were my own.
We had been hit by random rifle fire from the mountain several times over the previous month. The Viet Cong was probably working alone. We figured he was infiltrating the massive rocks on our mountain, and when satisfied with his position, would blow off a twenty-round clip from his AK-47. Many of his rounds came in through our hooch roofs. He had killed one man, and scared the s**t out of all of us. It had been announced that we were going to respond in full force if the guy hit us again, and I knew it was likely that we would be firing on the "sniper" since he had become a problem with a pattern.
To set up the photos, I needed to be as far away from the mountain as I could get so that I could get the maximum width of the mountain in the frame. That meant that I needed to be in the furthest guard tower from the mountain. I knew from the order in which we "fell out" to report for guard duty each evening that I could probably control which tower I would be assigned by being in the right place in line. Our fatigues (BDUs) had very large cargo pockets on the thighs where I stashed the camera. Each tower had three men, and I was off watch duty when the s**t started.
Having done some cave photography, which required long exposures, I knew what was needed. I rested the camera on the sandbag-reinforced wall of the tower to make sure the camera was absolutely motionless to prevent any blur and carefully aimed it in the limited background light. I used a cable release to keep any chance of a heavy shutter finger from affecting the shots and I made sure not to jiggle the camera cable release at all. With all the motion and light going on in the foreground, I had to be perfectly still or the shots would be ruined. The exposures varied from fifteen seconds to one minute. My objective was to get enough "action" to make them interesting and to gather enough ambient light from the munitions to fill in the background with the features of the compound to add a setting for the images.
The red tracers in the photos are from M60 7.62 mm machine guns. The tracers are loaded in the belts four to one, which means there are actually five times as many bullets in the photos as are seen with the tracers. You can even see some of the rounds ricocheting off the rocks.
The white bursts without tracers are from an M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun firing high-explosive rounds.
The flat white tracers with explosions are from twin 40mm anti-aircraft Bofors guns firing a 1.57 inch diameter projectile in a 31.1 cm (12 inch) cartridge. The guns were mounted on an open turret M42 Duster, which is an open turret tank (We called them tracks.) The twin 40 mm guns were the same as the familiar Navy anti-aircraft Pom-Pom guns of WWII. I Occasionally crewed on it as a loader.
The bright white lights in the air and at ground level are hand-launched parachute flares that had hit the ground or would soon and were still burning.
Though we didn't know exactly where the sniper was, we approximated his location and concentrated our fire on that area. We sent out patrols during the day and found a blood trail one morning. Otherwise, we never found him.
During my tour I mailed several dozen rolls of 24 exposure and 36 exposure film home and asked my parents not to have them processed because I wanted to be there to judge their possible reactions and to reassure them. I had lied to them about my situation in Nam so they wouldn't worry about my safety, but that's another longer story.