Philip Jones Griffiths: Photographer whose Vietnam images changed photojournalism

Saturday 22 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Every so often, a series of photographs changes the way we look at the world. When Collier Books published Philip Jones Griffiths' Vietnam Inc. in 1971, the book was a revelation and, for Jones Griffiths, a labour of both love and revenge.

Philip Jones Griffiths was born in 1936 in the Welsh village of Rhuddlan near Rhyl in Flintshire. Growing up during a time when the great picture magazines – Life, Illustrated and Picture Post – were producing powerful picture stories, he became fascinated by photo-reportage and its ability to open a window on the world. He taught himself photography and before long was photographing weddings in his home town.

Jones Griffiths gained a place at Liverpool University to study pharmacy, but the photography bug had bitten hard. By the mid 1950s, he was producing work for The Manchester Guardian and Granada Television and his photographs were noticed by Norman Hall, the influential editor of the forward-looking Photography magazine. Pictorial Press began to distribute his work and his status as a documentarist grew.

Among the stories he covered for The Guardian was the CND Aldermaston march in 1960. He was always to be attracted to stories with a clear political meaning. Though many of the great picture magazines that had inspired him had closed, new and equally dynamic publications were taking their place; the Sunday Times and Observer magazines soon became desirable outlets for the new photojournalism.

In 1961, Jones Griffiths left his job as manager of an all-night chemist in Piccadilly Circus and joined the photo team at The Observer, under the picture editor Denis Hackett. Here, he came into contact with photographers such as Don McCullin, Michael Peto, Colin Jones and Jane Bown, a group whose images would become the cornerstone of the new social documentary in Britain.

In the early 1960s, Jones Griffiths freelanced regularly and selectively for publications with open-minded picture editors. He made a classic documentary story – "How Welsh is Wales?" – for the Sunday Times Magazine in 1963. In Michael Rand, the then art director of this brand new publication, he found a colleague who understood the language of photography, and who was prepared to use photographs boldly and not just as an adjunct to text.

For the group of photographers who congregated around Jones Griffiths in the early 1960s, the London scene was an exciting one. At the Institute for Contemporary Arts there was considerable interest in the new documentary photography, and a recent touring Cartier Bresson exhibition caused much interest, as had the large-scale "Family of Man" show at the Royal Festival Hall.

Photographers were central characters on the post-war arts and media scene – John Deakin was active as a portraitist in Soho, Roger Mayne was establishing himself as London's foremost social documentarist and most of the Picture Post photographers were still working. David Bailey and Terence Donovan would soon become not just successful fashion photographers, but media celebrities, as they brought a new street style into fashion magazines. Men's magazines such as Queen employed the new photographers and gave their pictures space and dignity. In 1964, The Observer launched its own colour supplement, and Jones Griffiths, already on staff, became a central photographer.

Documentary photography was very much the vogue, and from the late 1950s, Jones Griffiths was travelling around Britain to record a country still in a state of post-war dereliction.

The new weekend supplements, plus the older US magazines such as Life, gave photojournalists ample opportunities to document the war zones. Don McCullin's story, for The Sunday Times, on the famine in Biafra has become the stuff of journalistic legend, and in Vietnam, Philip Jones Griffiths consolidated his reputation as an incisive and committed photojournalist.

Jones Griffiths had always been an acute social critic, and gravitated to the left. Like many of the younger photographers in Vietnam, he questioned the U S presence in South-east Asia, and took the military media managers by surprise. Those who had expected the journalistic contingent to be "on side" were horrified by the critical reports and revealing photo stories that began to appear in mainstream publications across the world and were unable to control the output of energetic reporters who, as the war continued, arrived in Saigon by the score.

The most powerful written memories of the war in Vietnam came from Michael Herr in his reports for Rolling Stone magazine, but the most acute photographic statement was undoubtedly made by Jones Griffiths, who spent three years reporting from the country. He was passionate about the plight of the Vietnamese and as well as making photographs he also compiled data about the depredations of the Vietnamese economy. His book Vietnam Inc. (reportedly funded by the proceeds of a set of photographs of Jackie Kennedy holidaying in Cambodia) was an instant success. As well as taking the photographs, Jones Griffiths had written the detailed and acerbic text, a series of extended picture captions, which powerfully expressed the photographer's anger and despair.

In Vietnam Inc., Jones Griffiths showed children in burnt-out villages, captured Viet Cong under interrogation, families held at gunpoint by the US Marines, dead children, blood-soaked babies, Saigon brothels, girl prostitutes, all against the background of a beautiful and primarily rural country. He also photographed the Marines, bewildered and confused, lashed by the monsoon, wading their way through the rice fields and the jungle, fighting a war which, for most of them, had no rhyme or reason.

And, along the way, he made a valuable document of the increasing use of high technology by the US military, the emergence of the computer, the beginning of management speak. Jones Griffiths was particularly fascinated by the military's clumsy attempts to become involved in the complex Vietnamese social structure. He reflected that

To expect foreigners to be able to tune into this complexly structured existence, even when afforded every encouragement, is to be highly optimistic, especially in the case of the Americans whose alienation as a group from the Vietnamese is extreme; but, when the society as a whole is actively using every means possible to prevent its happening, the expectation is wildly unrealistic.

So, what the previous American administration should have asked itself is, whether or not to become involved in revolutionising (and simultaneously being exploited by) a people with whom it could not communicate: whether or not Americans should attempt to win the hearts and minds of a people who never reveal their desires or aspirations: whether or not it would be feasible to co-operate with a people who have a language that is impossible to speak and difficult to read even with the aid of a dictionary or phrase book . . . To put it another way, was it fair to send American boys to a country where they have twenty-five different ways of pronouncing the word "Ma"?

Vietnam Inc. was arguably the most important photo book of the 1970s. Its first printing sold out quickly, and has since become one of the most sought-after photography books of our time. (It was finally reissued, 30 years later, in 2001). Though its influence as a catalyst of political change is debatable, its importance within photoreportage cannot be underestimated.

For the young photographers emerging onto the independent scene in the 1970s, Vietnam Inc. epitomised the power of photography and the photo book and pointed to the emerging status of the photographer as author, rather than as the "other half" of a journalistic team. Together with Don McCullin's The Destruction Business (1971), The Concerned Photographer (1972) by Cornell Capa, David Douglas Duncan's War Without Heroes (1970) and Larry Burrows' Compassionate Photographer (1972), Vietnam Inc. was a central part of the new wave of photo books in which the photographer's personal experience was central.

The idea of the concerned photographer as a contemporary figure became the core of photographic practice in Europe and the US. The young men (and a very few women) who were embarking on their photographic education at the beginning of the 1970s saw these books as models for their own practice, even when their work took them no further than the north east of England or the English seaside. The immediacy and passion of Vietnam Inc., together with its trenchant early warning about the dangers of globalisation and US imperialism, set Jones Griffiths apart from most of the English photojournalists who had worked alongside him in the UK, and established him as a much-revered figure.

In 1971 Jones Griffiths joined the photographers' co-op Magnum, which had been set up by Robert Capper, Henry Cartier Bresson and George Rodger at the end of the Second World War. With the demand for high-quality photojournalism from magazines and galleries, Magnum was riding high as the dominant power in the photography market, with a status that elevated its members far above the press pack. The war photographer became a heroic figure in the public imagination and photographers such as Don McCullin became celebrities.

Magnum protected the interests of its members with ferocity and, as well as editorial work, the photographers received lucrative commissions from the corporate world to provide the visuals for company reports and increasingly, for advertising. But however many bargains Magnum and its photographers struck with the world of business, the public face of the agency was always that of high-minded, conscience-driven photoreportage, promoted through books and exhibitions, as well as through magazine pieces.

For Philip Jones Griffiths, and the other British photographers who joined around the same time, Magnum was the perfect home. Although noted for its tempestuous annual meetings and the arguments around who should or shouldn't be allowed to join (Jones Griffiths was bitterly opposed to Martin Parr's membership and refused even to speak to Parr after he was finally allowed to join), it has been a remarkably successful and influential organisation and Jones Griffiths played a pivotal part in the agency throughout the next three decades, serving as president for five years from 1980.

He continued to make photojournalism for the rest of his life, though, based in New York from 1980, he was not a familiar figure on the British scene. He retained his passionate attachment to South-east Asia but also made photographs in Algeria, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bosnia. Vietnam Inc. was perhaps a curse as well as a blessing for, despite all the work he produced after its publication, his name would always be linked to this work.

The images which Philip Jones Griffiths made in Vietnam in the late 1960s have remained a cornerstone of the post-war photojournalistic achievement. Passionate, partisan, campaigning, they challenged notions of objectivity and distance, and proclaimed that the photographer was a witness rather than an observer, a taker of testaments and a grave giver of warnings.

He continued to make photographs, despite illness, publishing Agent Orange in 2004 andViet Nam at Peace in 2005. At the time of his death, he was working on Recollections, a collection of his photographs of British life and society from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Val Williams

Philip Jones Griffiths, photographer: born Rhuddlan, Flintshire 18 February 1936; (two daughters); died London 19 March 2008.

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