The Listener: Snap decisions

In an instant, the photographer Eddie Adams captured an image that was to change the course of America's war in Vietnam. In this week's selection from the best of BBC Radio he talks about taking the picture - and reflects on the relationship he later developed with the gunman
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The Independent Culture


Founder of National Museum of Film, Photography and television, Bradford


Journalist and author, former editor of the Sunday Times





HAROLD EVANS: The single moment of time frozen by this image is one that every single person can recall without seeing it in front of them.

COLIN FORD: The image is of the execution of a Vietnam suspect by General Loan, Chief of the Vietnam Police. The date, 1 February 1968. The photographer, Associated Press's man on the spot, Eddie Adams.

EDDIE ADAMS: I was about 5ft away from the prisoner. The General was going to threaten him, this happened a lot. He reached for his pistol, pulled it out and as quick as he brought it up to the head I took his picture but I didn't know it was the same instant that he pulled the trigger. I had no idea. That one frame didn't bother me, in a way did not bother me. It bothered me after he fell to the ground because three or four foot of blood just squirted out of his head like a water fountain and I just turned away. I told one of the guys "Let me know when it's over." I didn't want to see it. And I just stayed there for a couple of minutes later, after this blood had gone, to take a couple more pictures of this body lying there. Afterwards I went back to the Associated Press office and dropped off the film, like any roll of film. I said: "I think I got some guy shooting somebody. The bullet was still in his head when the picture was taken."

CF: While Adams was taking his three shots - he also took one before and one after - a cameraman for American television company NBC was filming the execution, the murder.

HE: The moving image of that same scene is also pretty dramatic, but actually you can never recall it.

CF: Why do you think that is? Why do you think the still image survives and 30 years on we can all remember it? The television image, which was seen, I'm told, by 20 million people the night it went out, most people have forgotten.

HE: I don't know quite how other people's brains work but everybody I've talked to kind of agrees that their brain works like mine - they cannot recall a moving picture, but can recall a still. Until the brain is developed differently, the still will be the most important single visual image.

DON McCULLEN: I've seen this photograph on television in glorious colour and a great jet of blood comes out of that man's head as he falls down on the floor. The fact is this photograph will linger on for an eternity because it's one of those images that's hard to believe it's actually happening as you're looking at it. But it did happen.

CF: I suppose what is really rare about that photograph, and we don't often see it even today, is that it is a photograph of the actual moment of death. Have you photographed that, somebody actually dying in front of your lens?

DM: I've actually not photographed it because it's a very big moral question, isn't it? Do you have the right to record a man's death who hasn't invited you to? In this case this man didn't have any choice. You can see he's in deep shock. He knows he's about to die. So he's hardly going to say "Photograph me." Normally people like that were unceremoniously captured and dragged away and tortured and then possibly murdered, but you know ...

CF: Off camera?

DM: Always off camera. I mean I don't know what could have been in this man's mind, this Chief of Police, to take it upon himself to murder somebody in public in such a kind of arrogant way like this. I don't know why this man wasn't ever brought to trial for this public atrocity. And yet we talk about war crimes - you couldn't have a greater war crime than that.

CF: It was the criminal aspect of General Loan's deed that shocked Americans at the time. Was it really for people like him that the United States was fighting? It still shocks Don McCullen, and Adams, who curiously was to become quite friendly with the General.

EA: General Loan was our guy. We were supporting him. And believe me, the Americans did just as bad things. I just happened to see this and shoot it. He explained this after I got to know him. And I got to know him very, very well. If it hadn't been me who took the picture it might have been somebody else, so he never really blamed me. I often ask people, if you were he at that particular time ... if you'd just grabbed somebody who'd killed maybe your best friend, how do you know you wouldn't have pulled that trigger yourself?

CF: Would you have done?

EA: Would I have? I don't know. It's very possible. You know we don't know what we would do. It's war.

CF: Do you ever wish you hadn't taken it?

EA: Yes, yes I do. I'd never thought about it, but now that you've brought it up, yes.

CF: Why?

EA: Because I don't want to be responsible for somebody's life. Two people's lives were destroyed - the General's and man's who he shot. I went to his place to visit him once. Hadn't seen him in a long time. He had a pizza shop in Springfield, Virginia. And it was really funny because I came walking into the store and he's behind his counter and he's eyed me walking in, and he's watching me and I went over and said: "General," I said, "you haven't aged a bit. You look the same." He said: "Eddie, you really got old." We had a long talk and I went to the bathroom and scribbled on the wall was some graffiti. And all it says is: "We know who you are you fucker." So we talked and that was about it. And he was known. Nobody would go into his place. And I did all that.

CF: If ever there was a photograph that changed the world this is surely it. It seems to have affected the lives of everyone involved, including the photographer himself. Of course, the Tet Offensive, the fierce series of Vietcong attacks which suddenly made America realise that it wasn't, despite all the military propaganda, winning the war, played a central role.

HE: I think Eddie Adams would agree that the single photograph of his might not have had that effect if it hadn't been conjoined with Tet. Don't forget, it wasn't until Tet, which was 1968, that you had Walter Cronkite - the father figure of American television - coming back and saying the war was not winnable and that was when Lyndon Johnson said "If we've lost Walter Cronkite we've lost America." The photograph is actually symbolic, not just of brutality, but of desperation.

DM: War is always awful. I mean there's ... let's not beat about the bush ... there's nothing worse on this planet than warfare. And it seems to be getting worse, that's the terrible thing. I mean that makes me feel very sad as a person who tried so hard to persuade people. I had to stand in front of dying children. There's no way that you can ever do something about dying children; you can't start making marvellous composition, you can't somehow make it acceptable. You're trying to make it totally unacceptable.

CF: Let's go back to your never having taken this sort of photograph or taking someone being shot. Supposing you had known that by taking that photograph you could have stopped any more of that happening? Supposing you'd known, as Eddie Adams presumably didn't know at the time but found out later, that his picture might change the course of history, might stop that war, or start to stop it, would you have taken it then?

DM: I would be hard put to give you a truthful answer really. Because how are we to know when we are standing in front of a situation that the moment we've pressed the camera button at that very precise moment ... you're always recording history anyway but how are we to know that on this particular occasion, as in the case of Eddie Adams' situation, the magnitude of such an image. And so it's full of moral questions. Should I have taken it? Did I know I was changing history by taking it? Should I have stepped forward and tried to intervene? It's a question I'm often asked.

EA: You know you don't have any idea how many times I've cried about these pictures. I bleed in my heart ... it just rips you out. It tears you apart because ... there's nothing objective about taking these pictures. Nothing. You cannot be ... If you have a heart and are a human being how could you be objective?

CF: Two other powerful and memorable photographs from the Vietnam War are firmly lodged in many people's minds. One shows a little girl running towards us tearing off her napalm-burned clothes. The other is of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire. Are there any images from Nineties wars likely to be so memorable in 30 years' time?

HE: The curious thing about those photographs is that all of them have a certain composition which is memorable and I can summon to mind pictures from Kosovo of bodies and lines of refugees but none of them has that quality of equilibrium that Cartier-Bresson defined as "the decisive moment". That combination of pattern ... and the combination of pattern is very strong in Eddie Adams's picture, the upraised hand and of course the expression that second before death of the man about to die. I mean they are fantastically arresting. Content and composition come together and it's a genuine decisive moment.

CF: We both know a number of photographers, Eddie Adams and others, who worked in this kind of theatre of war and who have been permanently affected by it.

HE: The photographer is always having to wrestle with his eye and his conscience. And the two are actually irreconcilable because the eye has no emotion and just takes things, but the photographer who possesses the eye has the conscience and the feelings and the identification. Most photographers that I've talked to in my life have hearts as large as the Empire State Building. I mean they are totally, empathetically involved. Maybe this quality comes through in their photography. It's certain that they would not be able to do what they do, the risks they take, without feeling deep sympathy for the people they're photographing.

CF: As we still lurch from war to war, it's hard to know if photographs will go on playing such a dramatic role. The most widely-seen image to come out of Kosovo, for instance, is an automatic missile's eye view of its own targets. Even when we see it make a direct hit on a train or a convoy, by mistake we're told, there's none of the close-up drama which Eddie Adams or Don McCullen brought to their pictures. But realising how permanently these two great photographers have been scarred by the experience of war can we possibly expect them, or anyone else, to go through it all again?

DM: I don't need to go to war any more because it's already with me all the time. I have filing cabinets in my house that ... I was sitting looking at them last night and thought: "Why am I doing this? Why do I want all this stuff in my house where I live?" It's contamination in a way. It's like living in a contaminated house that's got dry rot, this is kind of human rot really. When you take a photograph that ... like the one we're looking at now, the Ed Adams picture of this policeman killing this man, I don't know how Eddie Adams lives with himself because I think to myself that "I know how I live with myself - badly", and does Eddie Adams have the same feelings that I do about doing this work?

EA: I started photographing celebrities because it takes nothing out of your heart, and it's fun if you can handle the publicists and the people around them. And the sad thing is you make more money taking pictures of celebrities. Now I'm basically tired of crying. I've had my heart ripped out so many times. My whole life has been hurt.

This programme was broadcast on Radio 4 as part of `Snapshots in the Dark'