Veteran Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths gave a talk earlier this week at the Royal Geographical Society in London, where he discussed his photographic experiences in Vietnam and a body of work that spans over 40 years.
The lecture was the first in a series by Magnum photographers that has been arranged by PhotoVoice, a charity that aims to help bring about social change through photography, of which Griffiths is Patron. Griffiths talked the audience through the three books he has published about Vietnam: the legendary Vietnam Inc, published in 1971 and credited as having a major influence on the American perception of the war in Vietnam, by revealing imagery that was severely at odds with the US political line at the time; Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Vietnam, a chilling and upsetting record of the after-effects of the chemical weapons used in the war, which led to children being born with severe physical defects; and Vietnam at Peace, a record of the 26 visits Griffiths has made to the country since the end of the war – “I’ve always believed that the more you go somewhere, the more you witness the evolution, the more you understand,” he said about his desire to keep returning.
Griffiths opened the talk by graphically spelling out the devastation caused to Vietnam by the war – “I’m not particularly interested in figures,” he commented. “But in Washington there is a memorial to the US deaths in the Vietnam war and it is 150 yards long. If the same memorial was built for the Vietnamese that were killed it would be nine miles long.” And he also reiterated how relevant the conflict remains today; “We seem to have learnt nothing from the Vietnam experience and are attempting to do the same thing in Iraq.”
He then talked unsentimentally about a selection of images of the war, revealing unexpected sides to life in battle – one image showed soldiers lying around reading brochures, and Griffiths explained: “Salesmen visited the GIs to try and sell them cars but as the war hotted up it was considered too dangerous to send a salesman so they sent brochures instead” – as well as unstinting scenes of the devastation caused. Yet, no matter how distressing the images seemed, he also acknowledged that he witnessed far worse. “When I looked through the viewfinder I would see things that I knew would never get published, that I would never let be published. It was almost a pornography of violence.”
1968. The Saigon fire department collected corpses during the Tet offensive. They had just placed this young girl, killed by US helicopter fire, in the back of their truck, where her distraught brother found her.
He also gave a masterclass in war photojournalism, commenting about one photograph that showed a sniper with his gun aimed at an open window while a child’s toy lay on the ground at his feet, that “my journalist friends insisted after seeing this photo that I carried headless dolls around to plant them in the image… they are so used to making things up, they assumed I did too… I didn’t set up pictures, I find reality far more interesting than anything I could set up.” Later in the talk, when he was asked about whether he ever cropped his images, he remarked that “none are croppped – it’s about getting it right in the frame. One would consider having to crop as a failure in the first degree.”
1967. This woman was tagged with the designation VNC (Vietnamese civilian). The wounded were normally tagged VCS (Vietcong suspect) while the dead were posthumously elevated to the rank of VCC (Vietcong confirmed).
Griffiths’ later images of life in post-war Vietnam were equally revealing and illustrated the vast, and possibly disheartening, changes that have taken place there. “The first few years after the war they were getting help from Russia,” he explained, when showing a series of images that revealed large advertising hoardings. “But when Russia imploded they had a problem of how to survive economically. The Vietnamese are very pragmatic and they fought a war to oppose consumer capitalism, but found in order to survive they had to embrace it.” Despite this, Griffiths heartily encouraged visiting the country – “It’s an amazingly beautiful place to go to,” he said. “A lot of the problems that were there ten years ago have gone and it’s a great place to hang out. It’s a cross between Paris in the ’30s and California in the ’60s.”
2004. The sailors made a beeline for the nearest bar with the words of their Commander John T Lauer ringing in their ears. He announced that his crew “is very thrilled to see Vietnamese people and culture”.
Griffiths rounded up his lecture by offering a rallying cry to budding photojournalists, and suggesting that Colombia was where he would head to if he was starting out now. “We’re living in a time that’s so important for photojournalism,” he said. “You’ve got to do it, no matter how trivial the magazines are, no matter how little money is in it. Find a way. This is such a historic period – this is the American Empire on the rampage. It hasn’t happened since the Roman Empire was on the rampage and there weren’t photographs then. Follow the Americans – that’s what’s important right now.”
The next talk in the PhotoVoice/Magnum Photos lecture series will take place on May 1, when Ian Berry will discuss his coverage of a changing South Africa. To book tickets, or for more info on PhotoVoice, visit www.photovoice.org.