Philip Jones Griffiths: Picturing the war within & without

A decade after his death Philip Jones Griffiths continues to inspire photojournalists. His work during the Vietnam War helped a generation reflect on the consequences of trauma and conflict

When his 1971 book Vietnam Inc. with more than 250 photographs of the war-torn country and its affected people was published, it was instantly hailed as a masterpiece; a seminal document of the horrors of war; and a classic of photojournalism. Time magazine called Vietnam Inc. 'the best work of photo-reportage of war ever published'; and The New Statesman observed: 'Of all the hundreds of books about [the War,] this is the truest, the most important, the most upsetting'. His powerful images of wounded civilians, burn victims, dying children, bleeding bodies, fleeing multitudes and bombed pasturelands of Vietnam resonate to this day.

Entirely self-taught in his art, and unflinchingly humanist in outlook, Philip Jones Griffiths (1936-2008) focused his lens on the victims and their suffering, bypassing a scheming and cleverly crafted propaganda. When he arrived in Vietnam in 1966, he sought to see the country with his own eyes and to understand first-hand what was really happening. “I approached Vietnam rather like a chemist analysing an unknown substance in a pharmaceutical exam.”

His extensive travels and personal experiences thoroughly disproved official reports, and revealed the true nature of an organised and slanderous military operation which set out to desecrate both the culture and the people of a tiny but beautiful country. “It was apparent that what we were being told was not true or correct. These highly intelligent Vietnamese who had dealt with foreigners for 2000 years were not stupid gooks that the Americans said they were… In fact, the contrast between these very intelligent ‘Davids’ against these happy-go-lucky and deadly ‘Goaliaths’ was so obvious.” Decades later, in a BBC interview he recalled: "I wanted to show that the Vietnamese were people the Americans should be emulating rather than destroying.”

Pharmacy to photography

Born on February 18 1936 in Wales, Griffiths studied pharmacy but became a freelance photographer covering assignments for The Manchestar Guardian and The Observer newspapers in the early 1960s. His assignments took him to Africa, Alaska and throughout Europe; he also covered the Algerian War in 1962. He was already an associate member of the famed Magnum Photo Agency when he arrived in Vietnam in 1966.

Even as he captured those evocative and heart rending images of the war, it was not easy to get them published, thanks to the prevalent mood in America which included a highly manipulated media. Even when published, many of his pictures were deliberately tutored with blatantly misleading headings and captions. “Just what I was trying to say was nullified by erroneous captions.”

It was his passionate involvement with the Vietnamese people and their ill-fated plight that prodded him to compile Vietnam Inc., a venture which provided him with full control and freedom. Along with the photographs he could include detailed texts and extended picture captions which helped the viewer/reader to comprehend the author’s feelings and emotions about the man made disaster.

Interestingly, Griffiths could fund the project not out of the proceeds of his war pictures but thanks to the sale of a set of photographs of Jackie Kennedy on a clandestine holiday with a male friend in Cambodia; it was considered to be a scoop, which the American media eagerly lapped for a hefty price!

In 2001, Vietnam Inc. was reprinted with a foreword by Noam Chomsky. “If anybody in Washington had read that book,” wrote the famed social critic, and political activist, “we wouldn’t have had these wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.” Griffiths continued a lifelong relationship with Vietnam, and visited the country more than 25 times in his life. He produced two books on post-war Vietnam: Agent Orange:“Collateral Damage” in Viet Nam (2003) and Vietnam at Peace (2005).

Comparison to Goya

Among the many enthusiasts of Griffiths’ pictures was eminent photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, also a founder-member of Magnum. “Not since (Spanish artist Francisco) Goya,” Cartier-Bresson wrote, “has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths.” Cartier-Bresson whose concept of ‘decisive moment’ became a worldwide phenomenon inspired many talented photographers including Griffiths.

Griffiths held strong views on photography, journalism, media ownership and the changing nature of mass communication. He continued to photograph conflicts and human interest stories all his life and was amazed the way the entire ‘news industry’ worked; it had, according to him, become so manipulative that it was ‘trying to fool most of the people most of the time.’ “Virtually the whole of society believes in what they believe not by direct experience but by what they’ve been told,” he said in an interview. “We photographers are in this exalted, privileged position of actually going out to find out for ourselves, and that’s why we’re so dangerous. Because we were there. We saw what happened.”

He also felt that it was important to take pictures which kept the viewer’s sensibilities in mind. “I personally believe that the healthy reaction to looking at the obscenity or pornography of violence is to close your eyes or close the page. So it is important to take that kind of picture which resonates with the real person. And that is why photography is so ‘dangerous’ for those guys ‘up there’ but it is so powerful to the rest of us. It is the ultimate universal language….”

He also recognised how vulnerable the viewers of photographs and war-time stories could be. “There are statistical evidences that half the people in this country (USA) believe that Saddam Hussein bombed the WTC … which shows the success of how you can trivialise things. During the Gulf War, for instance, research showed that the longer you watched television the less you understood about the war. So, it doesn’t look good.”

Griffiths believed that journalists should be ‘by their very nature anarchists’, people who want to point out things that are not generally approved of. “It’s by criticizing that society that humanity has made progress.” He also prescribed ‘invisibility’ as critically important for a journalist. “I learnt invisibility from the start. I could be the fly-on-the-wall with a funny box around my neck, and become part of the action without being in it.…What photographers want most, even more than sex, is to be invisible. That's true of every photographer in the world - except those who want to be celebrities.” Above all, he regarded being a human being as an essential prerequisite to 'humanitarian' photography. “Saving and helping people comes first. Even if you have to hold a stretcher up with your left hand to shoot (pictures) with your right.”

Griffiths remained active all through his life. After leaving Vietnam, he located himself in Bangkok before moving on to New York for a five-year stint as president of Magnum. Interestingly, he spent large chunk of his life after Vietnam in America, a country which he scathingly attacked for its involvement in South-East Asia. He never married in his life, but had two daughters from as many long term relationships. When he died on 19 March 2008 in London, aged 72, the daughters travelled to Vietnam to have his ashes scattered there, as wished by him.

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