Ask a Veteran
These Museum staffers and volunteers once served their country in the armed forces. Now they serve in a different way.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- AirSpaceMag.com, November 10, 2011
When the generals in the Pentagon wanted to see what was going on in Vietnam, they called on men like Carl C. Hansen. Hansen was part of a special unit trained in motion picture and still photography. Teams from the Department of the Army Special Photographic Office (DASPO), based at Fort Shafter in Hawaii, would spend three months in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, before returning stateside to await their next assignment.
Hansen documented the Tet Offensive, President Nixon’s visit to a combat zone, and the arrival of the first National Guard Unit in Vietnam. Sometimes his work was mundane: He once shot a documentary on which boots best prevented jungle rot. And other times it was heartbreaking, such as when he recorded the daily tasks of the Combat Field Mortuary. “Shooting the mortuary story was the toughest thing I had to do,” he recalls. “About 385 bodies a week were going through there. And we were documenting how the mortuary ran. It was very intense for quite a few weeks.”
Hansen had no intention of becoming a filmmaker. As a young boy on the eastern plains of Montana, he’d considered becoming an architect. The Army had other plans, and offered the 18-year-old a slot in its film school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. “It was excellent training,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, I came out of there with the equivalent of a college degree.”
Once in Vietnam, “We had very, very little supervision,” says Hansen. “Our film was flown from Vietnam back to the Pentagon, and we didn’t see the results quite often for months.” It was a different way to work. “You didn’t get to participate in producing the final product, and you didn’t have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes,” he says. “It was so far from the time when you shot it and when you actually saw it, you couldn’t go out and reshoot. That was the frustrating part of the way the organization was set up. But it was interesting; everything I did was interesting.”
After leaving the Army in 1970, Hansen went to the University of Montana, worked on a couple of newspapers, and was a motion picture photographer for NBC News. In 1985 he was offered a position as a photographer at the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He stayed there for seven years before transferring to Washington, D.C. to become chief of photography at the Natural History Museum. He eventually became director of Smithsonian Photographic Services, overseeing not only the photography branches of three museums and Smithsonian-wide events, but also curating 3 million of the Institution's photographs.
In 2007, his professional career came full circle when he was walking through the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and realized a photograph on display looked extremely familiar: It was one he had taken as a 19-year-old private in Vietnam.
Carl C. Hansen stands next to a photograph he took in 1969 in Vietnam as part of the Army Special Photographic Office. The image is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.