1952 Hong Kong – Indochina

Since a visit to Red China posed enormous difficulties, Bischof decided on Hong Kong instead. The pictures from Hong Kong were to become a further puzzle piece in a planned book on Asia. Two years before its utter defeat in Dien Bien Phu, the French colonial power was still waging war against the Vietminh. Bischof arrived as a war photo­grapher, but found himself here, too, more interested in the civil population. He was at a crossroads in his career as a photographer.

1952 Hong Kong Island

Kowloon, Hong Kong, May 1952

Werner Bischof works on a story about refugees, to be called ‘The end of the road.’

“For hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Hong Kong has come to mean the end of the road to freedom. Since the Revolution in 1949 they have been coming in a steady stream to find sanctuary from a Chinese homeland they can no longer call home.

Now Hong Kong is confronted with the depressing spectacle of hundreds of wooden huts stretching for miles up the hills of the colony.”

1952 Indochina​

1952 Telegram

Hanoi 27 June 1952

A long telegram from ‘Paris Match’ was waiting for me here, full of subjects that go against the grain of my character. Maybe this is good because it strengthens my resolve to give up this careerist track of reporting.”

1952 La Rafale

On the armored train ‘La Rafale’, Indochina 1952

In the jungle between Saigon – Nha Trang

“What is ‘La Rafale’ (the blast) you will ask – that is a train caravan consisting of four wagons and equipped with its own security. The stretch between Saigon and Nha Trang wends its way through the jungle, in whose depths the Vietminh lurk. The mines are the most treacherous aspect of this train route and almost every week a train car explodes.”

1952 Gian Coc

Gian Coc, Indochina July 1952

“Why this hideous war? – It seems evident to me that, in the long run, France and Vietnam will have to surrender to the ongoing guerrilla war waged by the Vietminh.

They hate the Europeans, this is a fundamental truth that no one dares concede. The white man’s rule over the Orient is over.”

To Rosellina

My dear Rosellina, 

I’ve had enough. This story-chasing has become hard to take – not physically, but mentally. The work here no longer brings the joy of discoveries; what counts more than anything here is material value, money-making, fabricating stories to make things interesting.

I detest this type of sensationalism, don’t want to create the stuff you see in thousands of papers all over the world. Cheap thrills, idiotic stories that say nothing and ought never to be put on paper.

I can see that this sort of work is not for me, and that I’m just not a newspaper reporter. I’m at the mercy of the big newspapers. It won’t do. I’ve been prostituting myself, but now I’ve had enough. Deep inside me I still am – and always will be – an artist.

Don’t worry yourself too much with my concerns, though – be happy with little Marco.

je t’embrasse Werner

1952 Barau

Barau, Indochina, July 1952

“Barau is a small Moi village. A watch tower, like in a Roman settlement, in front of it the railway line which is shut with a bamboo gate in the evening.

On the other side of the line is the village. Huts made of mud and straw. The people here have suffered terribly from the war and are distrustful of strangers.

When I enter the village, they hide and close their windows and doors – impossible to start photographing straight away. The children are the first who venture forward out of curiosity and look at me. I do a drawing for them, and soon it becomes a game.”

“Gradually the doors open – a smile here and there. As a gesture of greeting, a girl brings me an egg.”

“The Saigon train passes through. I stay on. I need time, lots of time, for the village to get to know me and accept me; only then do I take out my camera “

“So here I am, sitting in my village, Barau, in front of a Moi hut with the delightful children and beautiful women, and observing the life around me. I want to make a story here – as a contrast to the war raging all around.”

“Today is a special day in Barau. Yesterday a woman died, and a coffin is being made in front of the hut and adjusted for size. The elderly sit around and monitor the progress of the labor. Behind the house a sow squeals as it is slaughtered for the funeral dinner. Children stamp rice all morning long.”

“Drawings are sketched onto the coffin, stylized flowers, a plane and the words ‘Pleasant Journey.’ A bottle of rice wine and a glass are placed on the head end of the coffin, since the soul lives on and only the body has departed. Everyone brings something for the long journey of the deceased and everyone carries in their pocket a small bottle of ‘Shum’ and entreats the dead person to partake of it.”

“The intact village community of Barau seems to me like an oasis in the midst of this cruel war. Here birth, life, and natural death coexist.”

Werner Bischof Estate
Am Wasser 55
CH-8049 Zurich
Switzerland
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