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

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.