Philip Jones Griffiths, Who Understood War and Peace, and People

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I would stroll
past the Hotel Royale in Saigon and look up at the corner balcony
on the first floor and see him there, camera resting on his arm.
A greeting in Welsh might drift down. Or his takeoff of an insane
American colonel we both knew. What was he doing? Best to be patient;
but this had gone on for days.

It was 1970
and we were on our first assignment together and at once became
friends, talking about the war as surreal, and mostly about the
people, whom he loved. He introduced me to "Kim Van Kieu,"
a deeply touching poem about struggle and sacrifice, with which
the Vietnamese as a nation identify:

matters little if a flower falls
if a tree can keep its leaves green . . .

I never met
a foreigner who cared as wisely for the Vietnamese, or about ordinary
people everywhere under the heel of great power, as Philip Jones
Griffiths. He was the greatest photographer and one of the finest
journalists of my lifetime, and a humanitarian to match. He died
on 19 March.

At the end
of that first assignment, he handed me a crumpled brown envelope
containing just six photographs. I was aghast — where was the bundle
of rolls of film, where were the copious sheets of contact prints
over which my picture editor in London would pore? I was puzzled
that he had seemed to take so few pictures, though his war-weary
Leica seldom left his hand. He watched, puckish, eyes twinkling,
as I opened the envelope, then enjoyed my reaction as I examined
the contents. Each print was exquisite in the power of its symbolism
and true to everything we had seen and talked about, especially
the destructive relationship between the Vietnamese and the Americans,
the invaded and the invaders.

My favorite
was of a large GI in a crowd of busy, opaque Vietnamese faces including
a young woman photographed in the act of picking his pocket artfully,
elegantly, little finger extended. This was the picture for which
he had waited days on the balcony at the Royale. Another was Catch-22
in a single frame — spruce US officers peering at IBM computer printouts
which "proved" they were winning the war they were demonstrably
losing. It might have been Iraq.

No photographer
produced such finely subversive work, knowing that truth in war
is always subversive. Also in my brown envelope was the Goya-like
picture of a captured NLF (Vietcong) soldier, prostrate, wounded
and surrounded in the darkness, yet undefeated in his humanity in
a manner his captors did not understand. Philip did.

In 2001, I
curated an exhibition at the Barbican of pictures by great photographers
I had worked with. Philip’s six from the brown envelope occupied
one wall and on their own made sense of the longest war of the 20th
century. He could write as finely. The pared, darkly ironic captions
in his classic work Vietnam
include this one, beneath those officers rejoicing
in their air-conditioned printouts: "This is the computer that
proves the war is being won. Data collected for the Hamlet Evaluation
System is analyzed to see who loves us. Results on the my-wife-is-not-trying-to-poison-me-therefore-she-loves-me
pattern are reliably produced, each and every month."

He liked the
soldiers whose photographs he took under fire, in the mud, believing
they, too, were victims. "My objective," he said, "was
not to allow my positive feelings toward them as individuals to
cloud the fact that they were prosecuting a genocidal war."
Iraq, he said recently, "is only different because every soldier
seems to have a digital camera."

was the antithesis of the anti-journalist who pretends to be objective
while ensuring his or her words remain within the undeclared limits
set by authority, whose flattery is reciprocated. He believed that
no human loss from war or poverty was accidental and that behind
each were "those murky forces," as Brecht puts it, of
responsible power. His remarkable book on Agent Orange, the chemical
that still murders and maims Vietnamese children, shamed those who
rarely if ever mention this enduring weapon of mass destruction.
His photographs of ordinary people, from his beloved Wales to Vietnam
and the shadows of Cambodia, make you realize who the true heroes
are. He was one of them.

26, 2008

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June.

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