Eddie Adams

Photojournalist of the Vietnam War

Wednesday 29 September 2004 00:00

Eddie Adams became famous as the photographer who, in a single image, symbolised the violence and pathos of the Vietnam War.

Edward Thomas Adams, photojournalist: born New Kensington, Pennsylvania 12 June 1933; married first Ann Fedorchak (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), second 1989 Alyssa Adkins (one son); died New York 19 September 2004.

Eddie Adams became famous as the photographer who, in a single image, symbolised the violence and pathos of the Vietnam War.

The image which he made on a Saigon street corner on 1 February 1968, of Brigadier-General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Vietcong prisoner through the head at close range, became iconic in news reportage and began a long-running debate about the ethics of photojournalism. But Adams was far more than an opportunist press man, sending an outrageous image across the world to further his career. Like many of his journalistic contemporaries, he was an intelligent, critical observer of one of the United States' most damaging military adventures, questioning US intervention in South-East Asia and also the role of combat reportage.

As a schoolboy in Pennsylvania, Adams had taught himself photography and became a contributor to his high-school newspaper, subsidising his hobby with regular wedding and portrait commissions in the neighbourhood. Photography took him into the US Marine Corps, where he became an army photographer, documenting the Korean War in the Fifties.

His experience in the military gave him insight into, and sympathy with, the predicament of the rank and file US soldier, the hapless "grunts", young men from poor backgrounds and with little education, precipitated into violent and chaotic theatres of war.

When Adams first went to Vietnam, as a freelance photographer for Associated Press, he was initially critical of the anti-war journalists who gathered in Saigon:

They were labelled Communists by the government in the early days for writing what they did, but they were right. At the beginning, I was against what they were doing - I didn't really see what they saw until a little later. Why I changed, what really happened is, I saw people get blown away, yet we weren't really making any progress. I couldn't understand. I went over there to take pictures; I wasn't interested in politics . . . But then I saw America dictating to other countries the American way of life, which is not necessarily good in other countries.

In Vietnam, Adams was one of a group of reporters and photographers who became increasingly sceptical about America's role in Vietnam. Most were seasoned combat journalists, some, like Adams, with deep roots in the military. All viewed with some apprehension and suspicion the influx of hundreds of photographers and writers into Saigon from the mid-Sixties onwards. According to Adams's fellow photographer the former Stars and Stripes photojournalist Malcolm Browne,

There was a hard core of perhaps no more than 15 or 20 reporters who furnished 99 per cent of the important news and photography. The rest were groupies and intelligence types and religious fanatics and God knows what.

Adams and his cohort of seasoned photojournalists were witnessing the greatest free-for-all in news reporting since the First World War - almost anyone could be accredited as a war correspondent and any magazine (including Rolling Stone, which published some of the most notable anti-war photojournalism of the post-war period) was welcome to send out a journalist.

Many travelled under their own steam, attracted by the excitement of a far-flung conflict in an exotic place. It was an experiment which the US would not repeat, as new reports and photographs convinced an already uneasy American and European public of the questionable nature of America's participation in the Vietnam conflict.

When The New York Times published Eddie Adams's photograph of the Saigon execution on 2 February 1968, it seemed to symbolise the casual brutality of the war - so powerful was its effect that in 1969 it won for Adams both the Pulitzer Prize and the World Press Photo Award.

Although the execution photograph became legendary, Adams was always a workaday press photographer, quite different from the élite group of magazine photojournalists who operated out of Saigon. Unlike Larry Burrows and Philip Jones Griffiths, both employed to produce in-depth editorial photo stories, Adams was above all a press man, submitting several stories a week to his editors back in New York. Many years later he told the historian Susan D. Moeller:

You'd spend a couple of days to do the story, you'd then get on a helicopter back to Danang, then back on a plane to Saigon with the film. And once we got back we'd get drunk and live it up for a couple days - really get smashed. Then you'd hear that there's a good battle going on in the Delta and do that for a couple days, then get back and get drunk all over again, smoke dope. You'd do it because everybody knew that you could get blown away the next day.

The day during the Tet offensive that Adams photographed Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing his prisoner was much like any other for a war correspondent accustomed to reacting quickly to rumour, events and the promise of action. Years later, in 1987, he remembered it clearly:

NBC heard about a battle taking place in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. Vietcong were inside a Buddhist temple, using that as a cover to shoot out into the street and into the South Vietnamese soldiers and police. A small minor battle was going on. So the NBC crew came over and said, "Anyone want to come?" And I said, "Why not?"

Adams drove up into the area, parked a few blocks away from where shooting could be heard, then walked over and took pictures:

As we walked back to the car, we saw that the South Vietnamese had just grabbed this guy . . . we saw them walking him down the street. And so, like any newsman, we followed up on the story; we continued photographing in case someone took a swing at him or he fell or whatever. So we just followed them down to the corner where they stopped for a minute, and . . . some guy walked over - we didn't know who he was - and . . . pulled a pistol out.

As soon as he went for his pistol, I raised the camera thinking he was going to threaten him. I took a picture. That was the instant he shot him. I had no idea it was going to happen. He put the pistol back in his pocket and walked over to us and said, "He killed many of my men and many of your people." And walked away.

For Adams, the photograph was both a triumph of news reporting and a personal, sometimes painful, liability. He was often asked if the photograph was staged for the cameras, or even faked. His reputation as a photojournalist grew, and his career prospered. He won many prizes and honours for his photojournalism, including in 1978 the much-prized Robert Capa award. But the photograph which had brought him fame increasingly troubled him - he insisted that it should not be included in exhibitions and refused to become involved in the ethical and moral questions which increasingly surrounded it.

Eddie Adams remained a photojournalist for the rest of his life. After leaving Associated Press in the early Seventies, he worked for Time magazine before returning to AP in 1976. From Korea to the Gulf War, he photographed combat wherever it broke out. For the last 30 years, he freelanced for a number of magazines, but principally for Parade, where he became a leading contributor.

Adams was fascinated by photojournalism, its dynamism and power, its ability to form and change opinions, its reliance on luck and chance. He knew, and sometimes feared, the power of photoreportage - "Photographs," he said, "they're only half-truths."

Val Williams

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