THE DARK IN THE LIGHT

His pictures shaped the way the world saw Vietnam; his Welshness shaped him. A friend and colleague pays tribute to a modern master
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The photographs on these pages are, of their kind, masterpieces. That's a bold claim, I realise. True, the Welsh photographer Philip Jones Griffiths has been a friend of mine for more than 30 years, and we have worked together in many parts of the world, especially in Vietnam. Wartime buddies? I suppose we are. Prejudiced? Perhaps I am. At least I can tell you what kind of man Philip is, what kind of life he has led, to produce this work. His photographs, collected in his new book Dark Odyssey, tell much the same story; I offer a personal interpretation.

Many of these images, particularly of Vietnam, will seem familiar. Some are familiar; they were published around the world during the Vietnam War, and others inspired much of Francis Ford Coppola's film fantasy Apocalypse Now, which in turn has, for better or for worse, influenced the way a whole generation who were not there visualise that sad war. Philip's 1971 book Vietnam Inc. even contributed some dialogue to Coppola's film, taken from the long captions Philip wrote, as here, to reinforce his photographs. Influencing, even shaping, the way the world saw a war is quite a feat for one man. Only a photographer could have done it, one with a fiery, focused vision, a preacher's energy, and some luck. A Welsh photographer, in fact.

Philip looks Welsh. A big, genial man, he is built like a rugby forward. He talks (a lot) with a lilting accent, hinting that his first language was not English, but musical and emotional Welsh. His family names, Jones Griffiths, are aggressively Welsh. His national allegiances (especially his view of Wales in relation to England) are not, I think, incidental to his work. Philip has carried Wales with him to 140 countries, to wars, revolutions, and civil commotions beyond count. With these photographs the long thread connecting his childhood in Wales with the culmination in Vietnam and other violent parts of the world may not be obvious. Let us trace it.

Philip was born in the little town of Rhuddlan, in north Wales, in 1936. He spoke Welsh as a child (and he sometimes speaks it still); to Philip and his compatriots, Welsh resounds with affection, intimacy, neighbourliness, the warmth of home. By contrast, English (which he learnt at school) is the language of commerce, the coldest of all human relationships; the tongue of power and greed, of the raucous seaside huckstering of the English pitchmen down at the nearby holiday resort, Rhyl, and of smoke-blackened, industry-scarred England, just over the border.

Philip's emotional landscape is not consistent. English has also been the language of opportunity for him, while Welsh was the vehicle of a stern, unforgiving Protestant religion itself imported from England. In Philip's mind, Welsh puritanism and Welsh patriotism have joined to shape a powerful image: that of gentle village life crushed under the wheels of brutal, mechanised invaders. This vision is too elemental to be called politics or ideology; it belongs in a medieval passion play about the struggle of light against darkness. Philip carried it around the world, until he encountered a place it seemed to explain: Vietnam.

Philip did not have an unhappy childhood - far from it. His home town stands on the river Clwyd, winding from distant mountains through the farm landscape of north Wales to the sea. Philip's father, Joseph Griffiths, supervised the local trucking service of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. Catherine Jones, Philip's mother, was Rhuddlan's district nurse, who ran a small maternity clinic at home. In the Welsh manner, Philip uses the names of both his parents, to distinguish himself from all the other Joneses and Griffithses of the neighbourhood. He recalls an uneventful childhood, with World War II only a far-off, menacing rumble, brought nearer home by food rationing and a never-to-be-forgotten air raid on Liverpool, on the day Philip, aged five, happened to be visiting there with his mother.

As in all Welsh villages, religion was important in the family's life. One of Philip's uncles is a preacher, and his father was precentor at the local Wesleyan chapel. He maintains he is now anti-religion, but concedes that, in at least one respect, early exposure to a stern faith has left a deep mark. Wesleyan Methodism teaches that the Lord has put us on earth to use our God-given talents to leave the world better than we found it. For Philip, the Lord's work has turned out to be crusading photojournalism.

Philip remembers that photography found him, rather than the other way around. As a child he was given a Kodak Brownie, "the magic box that makes pictures". At St Astaph Grammar School near Rhudllan he discovered chemistry, and touched off the traditional explosions in the garden shed. From there it was a short step to buy developer and hypo, and process and print his films using the family bathroom as a makeshift darkroom. Still at secondary school, Philip started to earn a few shillings photographing weddings. He soon bought a better camera.

His parents, and perhaps Philip himself, completely misread these youthful enthusiasms. His mother saw a link between photographic chemistry and the pharmaceutical profession. To his father, pharmacy was a steady, respected line of work. In 1952, at 16, Philip was apprenticed to the local branch of Boots the Chemist in Rhyl, with the added chore of developing and printing black-and-white photographs. The following year he had his first news photograph, a portrait of the local MP, published in the Rhyl Leader newspaper for a reproduction fee of 10 shillings (50p). He kept taking photographs and sometimes selling them while he finished his pharmaceutical studies in Liverpool.

By 1961, at 25, the burly young Welshman had moved to London, and was holding down one of the toughest jobs in all pharmacy - as night manager of the Boots branch in Piccadilly Circus. One of only two all-night chemists in London, this Boots was (in those innocent days) frequented by registered drug addicts picking up their prescriptions of free heroin, prostitutes purchasing the paraphernalia of their trade, drunks and bar brawlers buying bandages and many more picturesque slices of low life. Philip was free to photograph them. The 1961 edition of Photography Annual carried five of his Piccadilly photographs. Dennis Hackett, picture editor of the Observer, offered him freelance work. Before long, the Observer was using photographs, credited to Philip Jones Griffiths, of the new war raging in Algeria. Boots had to find a new night manager.

How did an unknown, absurdly young man manage such a fast climb to a prestigious pinnacle of Fleet Street? Part of the explanation was, of course, natural talent: visual curiosity, an eye for the meaningfully incongruous, a fast finger on the shutter release as the desired composition flashes into frame. These are the basic skills, probably inborn. But just about anyone, by following a few simple rules, can take a publishable photograph. Many non-photographic skills are also asked of the outstanding photojournalist: stamina, robust physical and mental health, self-reliance, patience with endless delays and obstructions, the painstaking organising of logistics, the knack of getting along with colleagues and competitors, luck in being in the right place, and the other kind of luck, in not getting aboard the wrong helicopter. Separately, these qualities are not uncommon. In combination with a visual gift they are rare.

Philip's timing was excellent. He arrived in London, Leica in hand, at the beginning of the Swinging Sixties, just as the market was newly opened for photographers who could think beyond a single snapshot - for "photojournalists", as we started to call them. After the peaceful gap of the 1950s, there were new wars in Africa, South-east Asia, China, the Middle East, and South America, needing coverage by a new generation of photographers. When I first met him in 1964, Philip had worked in more than 40 countries, lived with anti-French rebels in Algeria, toured Ethiopia, and even trailed the ageing Duke of Windsor through Harley Street. Not bad, for someone barely 28 years old.

Up to that point, Philip's photographs are those of an intelligent, more- than-competent craftsman. Impeccably composed, striking and effective, his work shows little individual style, and his subjects seem to have been dictated by the vagaries of editorial assignments. Many of the early images could have come out of Picture Post, where Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy, and George Rodger had taught a generation to see a gritty, gloomy, far- from-Merrie England. Philip added post-Depression Wales. His promise was quickly recognised: on the proposal of his friend, Ian Berry, he was invited to apply to join Magnum, the famous co-operative photo agency. Later he was Magnum's president for an unprecedented five-year term. He is a loyal member to this day.

The war in Vietnam was visually overwhelming. When Philip arrived in 1966, you could still make out the crumbling French observation towers of the previous war, overlooking enamelled green rice paddies, small boys and straw hats, city girls floating along in the exquisite ao dzai, most ethereal of female garments. But by then, the landscape was already bomb- cratered and scarred at every crossroads with sandbags, bunkers, and barbed wire. Gigantic American trucks tore up fragile roads and scattered shoals of Vespa riders and the skinny, sweating drivers. The tree-shaded boulevards of French days were crowded with two seemingly different species of the human race; tiny brown Vietnamese and huge pink Americans, a daily visual reminder that a big, powerful country had come to make war in (or, as Philip said, on) a small, insignificant one.

Vietnam was the first and will almost certainly be the last war in which the correspondents of "allies" and neutrals could get accreditation (from one side only), and free military transportation, without being subject to any form of government censorship. This unheard-of freedom of the press came about by accident. Early on, when America was said to be only "assisting" the South Vietnamese government, officially there was no war, and therefore no legal basis for censoring news. By 1966, American domestic support, high at first, was flagging. Yet, while Washington's first priority became rallying the home front, "selling" the war to increasingly disillusioned American voters, by that time, the introduction of official censorship would have made Americans at home even more suspicious.

This freedom from censorship, in a way, made life for writing journalists more confusing. Readers, and therefore editors, wanted to know who was winning, but also what the war was about, who was in the right, whether America should be involved. Where to look for the answers? Basically there were two possibilities: either to report what we were told in Saigon, least reliably at the infamous "five o'clock follies", the daily military press briefings, or to go into "the field", the rest of South Vietnam. Writers could do either, but, until fighting came to Saigon in the Tet offensive of February 1968, photographers had no choice: it was either the field, or a blank day. Usually, the field won.

The only way to get deeper into the story in words was to describe battles, which all sounded, after a while, pretty much the same. If America aimed at eliminating Communism from South Vietnam then the outlook was grim, considering that the borders could not be sealed, there seemed to be quite enough Communists inside them already, and there was another group of supporters in Berkeley, California. On the other hand, it seemed unlikely that a ragged army of peasant guerrillas could defeat the mechanised military juggernaut that had rolled over their country. With neither side able to win, it seemed the war would go on for ever - a heartbreaking prospect, but there were no verifiable facts to support any other. Some excellent descriptive writing came out of Vietnam, but little insightful analysis until long after the war was over.

On the other hand, Vietnam was the greatest, and the last, photographers' war. Photographers were in their element. Presented with an opportunity that will never come again, they were not called on to document the tedious progress, or nonprogress, of a war, to weigh the conflicting claims in search of an elusive truth. Photography's uniqueness is in isolating the here and now, time's river magically frozen for a hundredth of a second. Until electronic image manipulation came along, the camera was almost universally seen as a portable truth machine, its own verification built- in. But photography does not aim at objectivity, or seeing both sides: if there were such a thing as an impartial photograph, it would be supremely dull, and unlikely to get past the first edit. "This is what was in front of the lens," is all that a photograph can actually say; but, in the hands of a master, this simple statement can have enormous resonance. The most effective Vietnam images, especially Philip's, are simple and succinct, the visual equivalent of the strongest antiwar slogans. Not surprisingly, armies the world over now reject the very idea of uncensored war photography.

We all, of course, brought our own Vietnam with us to Vietnam. Most Americans arrived with historic anti-colonialism, directed at containing a supposed Communist empire directed from Moscow; they came with America's own racial conflicts. French reporters used the vocabulary of partisan resistance; anticlerical Italians arrived sure that, with the Pope on one side, they were on the other. Philip brought the most original vision of any of us: Vietnam fused with images from his own childhood, of kindly, rural Wales threatened by soulless, materialistic, powerful England over the border. With it he produced, I believe, a body of work that will live long after the contentions over Vietnam have faded into history.

Consider Philip's image of a bomb crater. I instantly recognise that particular hole, because I was standing next to Philip when he took the photograph. It was made during Operation Delaware, an attempt by the First Cavalry Division (Airborne) to block the A Shau Valley, through which a branch of the Ho Chi Minh supply trail reputedly ran towards Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam.

In April 1968 Philip and I had already covered, for the Sunday Times, Operation Pegasus, the relief of Khe Sanh. In that operation, the same division had tried out a novel way of making war - using helicopters carrying infantrymen riding inside, and heavy artillery slung underneath. On that first trial, the new system seemed to work - the helicopters were used to establish fire bases on the hilltops, allowing the Americans to avoid the opposition and hold their ground. If this was a viable way for the South Vietnamese borders to be sealed without having the entire US Army absorbed by the jungle, it was important news.

Two weeks later, Philip and I were on one of the helicopters headed west into the mountains from Camp Evans, an American base inland from Hue. A Vietcong attack on Hue was reported to be imminent, with the A Shau Valley a vital link in their supply route. We went along to see whether the helicopters could prevent it.

It was a disaster. As we crossed the mountains, we were shot at. Below us in the valley, a duel was going on between Vietcong artillery and American fighter-bombers trying to silence the guns with napalm. The helicopter ahead of us was hit, and crashed in flames. We were ordered back to Camp Evans. A half-hour later, our pilot told us we were going in again. This time the clouds had cleared, the flak had been silenced, and we were able to land. The first thing we saw on the ground was that huge bomb crater, made by a 1,000lb "jungle buster" dropped in some earlier attempt to cut the trail. Such craters are all over Vietnam, but something about this one stuck in my memory - relief, perhaps, at getting my boots on solid ground, agreeably surprised to be alive.

But look at what Philip has made of A Shau. The bomb crater, the soldier, the tiny US flag over the landing zone have come together in a powerful statement. The message is clear: a mechanised monster has despoiled an innocent landscape. The image still persuades, long after the event has become irrelevant. Freezing a passing moment into timeless truth is what artists do, not journalists. It is, I believe, as art, therefore, that we should assess Philip's best work.

This is why Philip's camera seems to take fire the moment he turns it to Vietnam. Some of his images may seem partisan to the point of parody, the work of an angry polemicist risking his credibility by relentlessly overstating his case. When we look more closely, however (although many of his images are painful to dwell on), a deeper message emerges. The players in Philip's photographs take on the symbolic weight of figures of good and evil in a medieval morality play: martyrs, monsters, the sacrifices and the sacrificed. The themes of defenceless innocence, suffering mother and child, grieving parents and mutilated grandparents figure in religious art because they speak to universal human emotions. Made in one war, only one of the many wars of this century, these Vietnam photographs have lost none of their impact. They are so here-and-now they could have been made yesterday, yet we know they will seem that way a century from now. Whether they told "the central truth about Vietnam" is now irrelevant. They certainly tell one truth, one that has already echoed down the years: our infinite readiness to inflict suffering on one another, for reasons that seem to us wise, just, and worthy at the time. This is the central truth of war itself.

For me (and also, I am told, for Henri Cartier-Bresson) the artist who comes closest to prefiguring Philip's Vietnam photographs is Francisco de Goya, whose suite of etchings Los Desastres de la Guerra was first published long after Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808. Goya's images of Spanish partisans shot and bayoneted by French soldiers were based on drawings he made on the spot - the forerunner of photography. And, like Philip, Goya was a critic of the "follies and extravagances" of his time, a stern moralist who used his art to preach against the tyrants and oppressors of his day.

What has Philip Jones Griffiths been doing since Vietnam? A great deal. The credit "Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum" has been carried on much distinguished photojournalism published over the years. Some of those images are shown on these pages; many more are collected in a new book of his work, Dark Odyssey. He has done some polished non-editorial photography, and in fact he shot last year's Sayle New Year family photograph. He has a family - or rather two, with a daughter each in London and New York. He has made films, as writer, director, presenter, and cameraman, for the BBC and Channel 4, about postwar Vietnam, Thailand, Pitcairn Island, and other topics. He spent much time in South-east Asia.

His obsession is not with war itself. One country, and one war, gave Philip the chance to say something very profound, very important to him, about life as he sees and understands it. Like Goya, he has found neither the need nor the occasion to say it twice. Time, therefore, to turn again to his images, the last of their kind we shall see, made in unrepeatable circumstances, by a rare talent - by my fearless friend Philip, a most original photographer with a very Welsh kind of genius.

! Extracted from the introduction to `Dark Odyssey' by Philip Jones Griffiths, published by Aperture at pounds 36.50

The captions on these pages are abridged versions of Philip Jones Griffiths's own. Above: this was once, in the 1930s, voted Most Beautiful Village in South Wales. It has long been obliterated by opencast mining. This young boy epitomises our ambivalent love for both rugby and music. (Panty-y-Waen, Wales, 1961)

Left: there had been a hanging that morning in Pentonville prison. A group gathered outside the pub opposite. The executed man lived nearby; these were some of his friends (London, 1958)

Above: miners at the Cwm colliery. Today they are virtually all gone - for reasons unconnected with economics (Wales, 1957)

Below: social changes in the 1960s took some pressure off men to behave always in a dominant manner (Calais, France, 1961)

Above: this 10-year-old South Vietnamese soldier was called a `little tiger' for killing two `Vietcong women cadres'- his mother and teacher, it was rumoured (Vietnam, 1968)

Right: this operation by the 1st Cavalry Division to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail failed like all the others, but the US military were shaken to find such sophisticated weapons stockpiled in the valley. Officers still talked of winning the war, of seeing `the light at the end of the tunnel'. As it happened there was a light, that of a fast-approaching express train (Vietnam, 1968)

Below: older soldiers who missed their families befriended dogs and children. The canines proved more congenial. More

dogs than wives were taken back to the US (Vietnam, 1967)

Right: US policy in Vietnam was based on the premise that peasants driven into the towns and cities by the carpet-bombing of the countryside would be safe. Furthermore, removed from their traditional value system they could be prepared for the imposition of consumerism. This `restructuring' of society suffered a setback when, in 1968, death rained down on the

urban enclaves (Saigon, 1968)

Above: this amphibious assault was to establish a beachhead for a barbecue. Vast quantities of meat and beer were consumed while local Vietnamese looked on. Such activities were promoted to engender morale among the troops and to expose the Vietnamese to what was considered the superior American way of life (Danang, Vietnam 1970)

Below: this woman was tagged, probably by a sympathetic corpsman, with the designation VNC (Vietnamese civilian). This was unusual. Wounded civilians were normally tagged VCS (Vietcong suspect) and all dead peasants were posthumously elevated to the rank of VCC (Vietcong confirmed) (Vietnam, 1967)

Comments