I would stroll past the Hotel Royale in Saigon
and look up at the corner balcony on the first floor and see him there, camera
resting on his arm. A greeting in Welsh might drift down. Or his takeoff of
an insane American colonel we both knew. What was he doing? Best to be patient;
but this had gone on for days.
It was 1970 and we were on our first assignment together and at once became
friends, talking about the war as surreal, and mostly about the people, whom
he loved. He introduced me to "Kim Van Kieu," a deeply touching poem
about struggle and sacrifice, with which the Vietnamese as a nation identify:
"It matters little if a flower falls
if a tree can keep its leaves green…"
I never met a foreigner who cared as wisely for the Vietnamese, or about ordinary
people everywhere under the heel of great power, as Philip Jones Griffiths.
He was the greatest photographer and one of the finest journalists of my lifetime,
and a humanitarian to match. He died on March 19.
At the end of that first assignment, he handed me a crumpled brown envelope
containing just six photographs. I was aghast – where was the bundle of rolls
of film, where were the copious sheets of contact prints over which my picture
editor in London would pore? I was puzzled that he had seemed to take so few
pictures, though his war-weary Leica seldom left his hand. He watched, puckish,
eyes twinkling, as I opened the envelope, then enjoyed my reaction as I examined
the contents. Each print was exquisite in the power of its symbolism and true
to everything we had seen and talked about, especially the destructive relationship
between the Vietnamese and the Americans, the invaded and the invaders.
My favorite was of a large GI in a crowd of busy, opaque Vietnamese faces including
a young woman photographed in the act of picking his pocket artfully, elegantly,
little finger extended. This was the picture for which he had waited days on
the balcony at the Royale. Another was Catch-22 in a single frame – spruce U.S.
officers peering at IBM computer printouts which "proved" they were
winning the war they were demonstrably losing. It might have been Iraq.
No photographer produced such finely subversive work, knowing that truth in
war is always subversive. Also in my brown envelope was the Goya-like picture
of a captured NLF (Vietcong) soldier, prostrate, wounded, and surrounded in
the darkness, yet undefeated in his humanity in a manner his captors did not
understand. Philip did.
In 2001, I curated an exhibition at the Barbican of pictures by great photographers
I had worked with. Philip's six from the brown envelope occupied one wall and
on their own made sense of the longest war of the 20th century. He could write
as finely. The pared, darkly ironic captions in his classic work Vietnam
Inc. include this one, beneath those officers rejoicing in their air-conditioned
printouts: "This is the computer that proves the war is being won. Data
collected for the Hamlet Evaluation System is analyzed to see who loves us.
Results on the my-wife-is-not-trying-to-poison-me-therefore-she-loves-me pattern
are reliably produced, each and every month."
He liked the soldiers whose photographs he took under fire, in the mud, believing
they, too, were victims. "My objective," he said, "was not to
allow my positive feelings toward them as individuals to cloud the fact that
they were prosecuting a genocidal war." Iraq, he said recently, "is
only different because every soldier seems to have a digital camera."
He was the antithesis of the anti-journalist who pretends to be objective while
ensuring his or her words remain within the undeclared limits set by authority,
whose flattery is reciprocated. He believed that no human loss from war or poverty
was accidental and that behind each were "those murky forces," as
Brecht puts it, of responsible power. His remarkable book on Agent Orange, the
chemical that still murders and maims Vietnamese children, shamed those who
rarely if ever mention this enduring weapon of mass destruction. His photographs
of ordinary people, from his beloved Wales to Vietnam and the shadows of Cambodia,
make you realize who the true heroes are. He was one of them.