Dinh Ngoc Thong, detail of Bo Doi saying farewell to family from VN Pictorial, 1954.
On June 10, 1963, Malcolm Browne, the bureau chief of AP in Saigon, received a call alerting him of a memorial service the following morning. “I strongly advise you to come,” said a voice, “I expect something very important will happen, but I cannot tell you what.” On the morning of June 11, a Buddhist procession of more than 350 monks and nuns took place. Browne was there and probably never imagined that one of the monks, Thich Quang Duc, would quietly sit on a cushion in the lotus position and set himself on fire in the middle of the intersection. Within fifteen hours, Browne’s photograph of the burning monk was featured in all major newspapers.
Malcolm Browne’s photograph of Thich Quang Duc on June 11, 1963.
The impact of this image was immediate: the Kennedy administration reassessed its policy on Vietnam by increasing the number of troops in the country. The rest, as we say, is history.
In The Camera at War, Jorge Lewinski noted that “So far as the photographic coverage is concerned, there never was, and probably never will be, another war like Vietnam.” Lewinski was not only referring to the amount of photographers and correspondents on the ground, but more specifically, to their unprecedented—and never allowed again—freedom.
Anon (AP), Father and Napalmed Child, Plain of Reeds, RVN, March 1964.
The British-Australian photographer Tim Page confirmed this during an interview in 2019: “Vietnam was the first and last war with no censorship.”
For some photographers, the search for gory and violent images became almost a challenge. For others, Philip Jones Griffiths above all, recording the Vietnamese horrors widened the purpose of their craft in order to reveal the futility of war and its everlasting consequences.
The photographs of the Vietnam War brought viewers face to face with previously unseen aspects of a conflict. Death was not hidden, embellished, or celebrated. The hollow eyes of the soldiers showed fear; their wounds spoke of human frailty. Hell became real in the form of impenetrable jungles swarming with unseeable enemies or as expanses of burned tree stumps that offered no protection. Women and children screamed as their skin melted away under the effect of napalm, Agent Orange, and white phosphorus.
Catherine Leroy, detail of 881N, Navy Corpsman Vernon Wike, April 1967.
Anon (Wide World Photos), Rubber Plantation Town at Thuan Loi, June 1965.
Christian Simonpietri, Marine and Dove, Hue, 1968.
Many of the photographs taken during the war became iconic. This happened not only because of the technical abilities of the photographers but because each and every one of their images made a dent in the people’s perception of the war.
Never before had the public seen the moment in which a man was simultaneously alive and already dead (Eddie Adams,Vietnamese General Executing a Viet Cong, 1968) or the impact of napalm on the bodies of children (Nick Ut, The Terror of War/Napalm Girl, 1972). Because of all these images, public opinion turned against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and began to put pressure on the government to end the war.
What about Vietnamese photographers? They did not have the luxury of unlimited film nor of modern equipment—they mainly had 50mm lens or heavy 1940s Kodak cameras—and yet the quality and significance of their images is exceptional.
Vuong Khanh Hong, Pioneering Youth Laying Fuel Pipeline on HCM Trail, 1974.
“We had very limited amounts of film that had been distributed to us by our paper.” Explained Nguyen Dinh Hu in Another Vietnam, “For us, one photo was like a bullet.” The composition and subjects of many of their photographs show influences of socialist realism and therefore a propagandistic purpose.
Another photographer, Vuong Khanh Hong, recalled how photographs were hung in the jungle to boost the morale of the soldiers. While photography was eroding motivation on the American side, on the other side it was fuelling confidence and hope.
Anon (Keystone Press), H-21 and H-27, Choppers in Rice Paddies, September 1963.
The human cost of the Vietnam War was hard for the press. It is estimated that more than 130 photographers from all over the world lost their lives in Vietnam. Robert Capa stepped on a landmine in 1954. Dickie Chapelle was the first female correspondent to be killed in Vietnam in 1965. Dana Stone and Sean Flynn disappeared in the jungle in 1970. A year later, Henri Huet, Larry Burrows, and Keizaburo Shimamoto died when their helicopter got shot down by North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns.
What these reporters left us are windows into the essence of humanity, its brutality, but also its determination to find hope even in the darkest of days.
Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.
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