Horst Faas: The chronicler of Vietnam who captured horror because he felt it

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Fêted photographer has died aged 79. Adrian Hamilton pays tribute

If the conflicts of today are defined by the video grabs and digital shots of the amateur observers at the scene, the wars and disasters of the last century were pictured in the work of the professional photojournalists seeking, often at great personal danger, the still image that would encompass a scene. None were more courageous or hard-bitten than the German photographer Horst Faas, who became famous for his work with the Associated Press during the Vietnam War.

If the world now has a sense of a bitter conflict fought with great brutality and enormous suffering to the civilian population it is thanks in large part to the work of Faas and other photographers such as Donald McCullin and Tim Page. War through their lens took on the image not of the mass destruction of the First World War newsreel photographers or the heroism and massed arms of the Second World War, but the individual act of brutality, the airborne destruction and the outright fear of a messy conflict without honour, still less glory.

Not that Faas would have put it that way. An agency photographer all his life, his philosophy was the classic creed of the front-line reporter: "I tried to be in the newspaper every day, to beat the opposition with better photos." That belied a spirit that was anything but uninvolved. If Faas won four major international prizes for his work, including two Pulitzers, it was because he pictured horror with the close-up ferocity of a man who, like McCullin, felt it.

His best shots – of terrified civilians clutching each other in fear as the bombs start dropping, of the soldier bayoneting the floored figure of an assumed enemy, the grieving father holding up the body of his naked dead child to a passing truckload of troops and the two children clutching their mothers and staring up at the grim face of a US infantryman – have an urgency and compassion that are deeply moving.

They were photographs bought at great personal danger. None more so than the agency employees required to get into the thick of action, to take the seminal shot with the clarity needed to reproduce it in the magazines and newspapers of the time and, not least, to get it back to the office in time for the early editions. Faas was renowned for his bravery but also his organisational ability. He got so many good shots because he worked out where the action was likely to be. From an apprenticeship covering conflicts in the Congo and Algeria, he moved to Saigon in 1962. As head of AP's picture desk, he took pictures and trained others. Two of the most famous images of the Vietnam conflict – Nick Ut's shot of a girl fleeing a napalm attack and Eddie Adams' picture of the execution of a Viet Cong suspect – were both taken on his watch.

Partially crippled by a rocket propelled grenade in 1967, he went on to cover the war in Bangladesh, the seizure of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and to act as senior picture editor for AP in Europe. Shooting or editing, he was the hardest-nosed of professionals in an age when the photojournalist was the most dangerous job of all.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'