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Eddie Adams: Photos only ‘half-truths’

In a single image, Eddie Adams’ photo of a South Vietnamese general shooting a Vietcong in the head captured the brutality of the Vietnam War. That moment – 1/500 of a second of the war – has become one of the most enduring and iconic images of the conflict.

Adams’ photo has been credited for ending the Vietnam War, although the war would not end for another seven years after he took the picture in 1968. The photo may not have single-handedly ended the war, but it was “the eye of a hurricane that tilted American public opinion against the war.” said George Esper, former AP Bureau Chief in Saigon, in a phone interview.

“It forced the American public realize that the war was not winnable, that it had become a war of attrition,” Esper said.

The photo was taken the day after the beginning of the Tet Offensive.

Esper said Adams had the ability to be where the action was, using his experience and connections as a Marine to gain access. “Eddie had a knack for being in the right place at the right time,” he said.

On Feb. 1, 1968, Adams arrived in the Saigon AP Bureau and heard from the NBC correspondent in the neighboring building about a “little battle” in the Cholon section of Saigon. Adams, the NBC correspondent and his videographer took off for the An Quang pagoda, where they heard Viet Cong were holed up.

They arrived and waited around. After 15 minutes, they saw Vietnamese troops pulling a man out of a building near the pagoda. Adams recounted the moment in a taped interview about AP photography, reprinted in the book Eddie Adams:

I was about five feet away from the prisoner…and to my left came this guy. I have no idea from where. I had a 35mm lens and a single-frame camera, and he went over and I saw him go for his pistol.

Well, when somebody goes for their pistol…they normally threaten the prisoner…I’ve taken pictures like that, somebody threatening somebody…You’re going to do this or I’m going to shoot you. And nothing ever happens. So I saw him go for his pistol. As soon as he raised his pistol I took one frame. And that was the instant when he shot him. I had no idea that he was going to do that.

Adams said the man then walked up to him and said, “He killed many of my men and many of your people.” Later Adams discovered the man was Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the national chief of police for South Vietnam.

In New York, then-AP Photo Chief Hal Buell said that he and the staff had no hesitation about whether or not to run the photo on the wires. “There’s always a consideration on a picture on that, but it was very brief,” Buell said in a phone interview. “We wouldn’t hold up a picture like that.”

All 20 major metropolitan newspapers and the newspapers in London and Tokyo ran the photo, Buell said.

Adams’ image has become one of the photos that have dominated the visual history of the Vietnam War, but, Buell said, the immediate public reaction did not draw a “vigorous response” for a few reasons. One was the war was not new. Another reason was no American was in the photo. And yet another reason was the execution-like shooting happened far away. This wasn’t Chicago or Los Angeles.

The reason the photo did become a symbol of the anti-war movement was politics and political “hawks” intent on ending the war, Buell said. The photo appeared on placards at anti-war demonstrations and editorial cartoon parodies, he said.

“The picture took on a life of its own simply because of the startling nature of it, which is true of most pictures that become icons,” Buell said.

Despite winning 1969 Pulitzer Prize for it, Adams was haunted by the photo. He never talked about the photo and did not hang it in his studio, Buell said. In the interview about AP photography, Adams said, “Two peoples’ were destroyed that day. The general’s life was destroyed, as well as the life of the Vietcong.”

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    Posted June 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

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