Vietnam War Photo Essays

Six times, an image of Vietnam became World Press Photo of the Year: In 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, and in 1973. Although television brought the war to many American living rooms, challenging the picture magazines as the primary source of visual information, photojournalism flourished. Two of the most famous pressphotos of all time were made during the Vietnam War, which demonstrated the power of the still image to capture a decisive moment and impress itself in the mind.

During the conflict, it was easy for photojournalists to obtain a press pass and support of the US military. Among the journalists that came to Vietnam, many were Japanese. One of them, Kyoichi Sawada, would become World Press Photo’s winner of the year twice. Since World War II, Japanese media had focused almost exclusively on domestic news. The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo stimulated public interest in the world outside Japan. While American troops were heading to Indochina from their military bases in Japan, the Vietnam War proved to be a fruitful subject, providing Japanese media with its first opportunity to exercise freedom of press in war coverage, while antiwar sentiment grew in Japan as it did in the United States.

Kyoichi Sawada and Hiromiche Mine were awarded for their combat coverage in Vietnam, while Shisei Kuwabara received a prize for a story less widely known: the dispatching of South Korean military forces to fight in Vietnam on the South Vietnamese side.

From the winning photographers, most had been staff photographers for news agencies such as United Press International (UPI) and The Associated Press (AP), and for influential picture magazines such as Life. AP’s Saigon desk was ran by Horst Faas, a formidable photojournalist and picture editor. Apart from winning two World Press Photo awards himself, he was instrumental in the distribution of Eddie Adams’ photo of a Saigon execution and Nick Ut’s image of a girl fleeing a napalm bombardment.

Newspapers published spot news images, while the picture magazines provided background stories and photo essays. In April 1965, Life magazine published ‘One Ride with Yankee Papa 13’, a famous photo story by Larry Burrows of one day in the life of a young helicopter gunner. In a harrowing photo sequence, Burrows’ pictures showed how one fatal mission could turn a resilient young man into a broken veteran.

Working so close to combat was extremely dangerous. Co Rentmeester, a Dutch staffer at Life, whose portrait of a US tank gunner was the first color photo to be selected as World Press Photo of the Year, had to leave Vietnam after being seriously wounded by a Vietcong sniper. Larry Burrows died when his helicopter, in which he was traveling with three other photojournalists, was shot down over Laos in February 1971. He was one of 135 photojournalists, from all sides of the conflict, who died or went missing while covering the Vietnam War and the preceding French Indochina War. Requiem, a 1997 project by Horst Faas and Tim Page, paid homage to these photographers, among whom were also prizewinners Kyoichi Sawada, Hiromichi Mine and Dana Stone.

The majority of the winning pictures show the South Vietnamese or American side of the Vietnam War. Only recently, photos by North Vietnamese photographers have become more visible outside Vietnam, for example in the 2002 exhibition and book project Another Vietnam, Pictures of the War from the Other Side [link: http://www.anothervietnam.com/toc.html]. The communist side of the story is not entirely lacking, though. The World Press Photo jury, which always included jury members from the communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, did award photos presenting the other side, albeit limited. All of them show American prisoners of war in North Vietnamese hands, like those of Russian photographer Lev Porter, who went to Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, and Bulgarian photographer Stefan Tihov, who was in Hanoi when two captured US pilots were presented to the press.

Prisoners of war from both sides were released immediately after the signing of the ceasefire agreement in January 1973. Two months later, American photojournalist Sal Veder made his famous picture of an American prisoner of war being reunited with his family after five years in North Vietnamese captivity. It earned him a first prize in the 1974 World Press Photo Contest, while his Hungarian colleague Endre Friedmann received a first prize as well for his story of North Vietnamese prisoners of war being released and exchanged with South Vietnamese prisoners.

In 1976, UPI submitted a dramatic picture to the World Press Photo contest, showing an overloaded US evacuation plane on Nha Trang Air Base in South Vietnam. Vietnamese photographer Thai Khac Chuong made the photo one day before the city would fall to the North Vietnamese army, on 2 April 1975, and won first prize in the Spot News category. He could not pick up the prize himself: When UPI closed its Saigon desk not long after, Thai Khac Chuong spent several years in a reeducation camp. Eventually he would move to Toronto, where he died in 2011.

Toronto also became the new home of Kim Phuc, the young girl in Nick Ut’s famous picture. In Toronto, Joe McNally would portray her again, with her son, 20 years after the 1975 Spring Offensive, which led to South Vietnam’s collapse, the hasty departure of the last American advisers, and the unification of the country.

Biography

Born in London, Larry Burrows began working in the city's press in 1942, first in the art department of the Daily Express; he soon learned photography and moved on to the darkrooms of the Keystone photography agency and LIFE. By 1961, Burrows had established himself as a staff photographer for LIFE and was covering the Vietnam War. Although he was a war correspondent for several international conflicts, including those in Lebanon, Iraq, Congo, and Cyprus, he is best known for his coverage of the war in Vietnam. Burrows did what he could to experience the war as a soldier: he flew combat missions with air crews, lived in military camps, and stayed at the front lines with the GIs during enemy fire. Such dedication eventually cost him his life, when his helicopter was shot down over Laos. LIFE ran Burrows's photographs from Vietnam frequently between 1962 and 1971, devoting many pages to his dramatic color photographs. Among his most important photo essays were "The Air War" (September 9, 1966) and "One Ride with Yankee Papa 13" (April 16, 1965). During his lifetime, his work was exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society in London, in 1971, and the Rochester Institute of Technology sponsored a traveling exhibition of his photography in 1972. He won many honors for his photography, including two Robert Capa Awards, the 1967 Magazine Photographer of the Year Award, and the 1967 British Press Picture of the Year Award.
Burrows's method of photojournalism was deliberate and meticulous, not dependent on chance and instinct. He carefully planned his photographs, dictating their scenario, setting, and composition on the basis of his observations of the battlefront, and often spending several days on a single image. Although his method may seem counter-intuitive for war photography, he captured many of the most effective and memorable images of the war in Vietnam.
Lisa Hostetler
Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 210.

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