Mythical power: Understanding photojournalism in the Vietnam War

January 31, 2013 · by David Campbell · photography, politics

VietnamInc Mythical power: Understanding photojournalism in the Vietnam War

Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. is a masterpiece, a classic work of photojournalism in the Vietnam War.

But it is often falsely claimed that the photographs in this book changed the course of world history. The latest iteration of this claim was a Magnum Photos tweet:

In response I wrote:

After some further tweets on why this claim is a myth, Magnum added quotation marks to their text and cited the book’s publisher Phaidon as the source. Indeed, Phaidon’s blurb declares:

Originally published in 1971, this groundbreaking book was essential in turning the tide of opinion in the US and ultimately helping to put an end to the Vietnam War

This myth is to be found in places other than a publisher’s blurb, with the Guardian obituary for Philip Jones Griffiths a prime example. And although there are some more considered reflections on the impact of Vietnam Inc., such as Val Williams obituary for Jones Griffiths, this myth about the power of pictures in relation to the Vietnam War (equally evident in claims about Nick Ut’s 1972 “napalm girl“), gets repeated airings.

Why are such claims false, and why is it important for contemporary photojournalism to call attention to this myth?

The conventional wisdom is that Vietnam was a “living room” war in which a highly critical media subjected its audience to a stream of graphic images depicting combat and its casualties. These pictures – including the iconic black and white photo photographs we can all easily recall – are said to have shocked viewers and mobilised public opinion against the war.

What is striking about these claims is that they are shared by both the military and it’s critics. The military think the coverage of Vietnam was unpatriotic and contributed to America’s defeat, while their critics endorse half that view and promote the idea that making the cost of war visible was the necessary step in ending it.

The problem is that what happened in Vietnam does not accord with the myth. The best analysis of American coverage – Daniel Hallin’s The Uncensored War – shows that far from being unpatriotic, newspapers, magazines and television continued to support official government perspectives even as the peace movement grew. Far from showing an incessant diet of gory visuals, the US media shied away from graphic images. Overall, journalists filed reports that were easily woven into a narrative that fitted the US government view.

This is significant for photojournalism’s understanding of its historical role and potential power. Many of the visual icons we now associate with the war – the photographs of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin and others – were either rejected by the American media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority coverage.

As much as many people want to believe that Philip Jones Griffiths’ images were puncturing the public consciousness from the front pages of newspapers, the reality of how his work was done and circulated is very different. As Jones Griffiths’ himself made clear in a 2002 video interview, he was not a press photographer who sought public change – he did the work for himself, was motivated by the idea of producing an historical document, and went to Vietnam with a contract for a book. A Photo Histories interview with Jones Griffiths also noted:

These images were too damning for Magnum to sell to a market dominated by the American media, but they came to fill the pages of a book that was to become one of the defining works of photojournalism.

Vietnam Inc. is therefore reportage after the event, and no less significant for that. Although Jones Griffiths first went to Vietnam in 1966, his book appeared in 1971. Even if we could show it made a dramatic impact at that particular time – something that has never been established – it is bad history to claim that pictures published then were major factors in either the peace movement or the end of the war.

I can’t give a full history of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement here, but a brief consideration of the conflict’s timeline shows obvious problems with the myth of picture power. If we make the Vietnam War synonymous with American and allied involvement, then here are the key milestones:

  • Late 1961: Kennedy sends US military advisors to South Vietnam
  • January 1962: the first US combat involvement when American helicopters ferry South Vietnamese troops into battle
  • February 1965: the Johnson administration begins the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing missions, and this brings the anti-war movement, which is associated with the civil rights movement, to prominence
  • March 1965: 3,500 Marines are sent to Vietnam, and this is the start of American involvement in the ground war, with polls showing US public in overwhelming support
  • April 1965: Johnson administration begins its escalation with US combat troop numbers increased to 60,000
  • December 1965: 200,000 Marines deployed
  • Late 1966: 385,000 US troops in Vietnam with another 60,000 off shore
  • January 1968: the Tet offensive is the turning point for US involvement, and public support shifts
  • March 1968: Johnson announces he will not seek re-election
  • May 1968: peace talks between the US and North Vietnam begin (and concluded in January 1973)
  • August 1968: riots at the Democratic National Convention
  • June 1969: Nixon administration starts troop withdrawal
  • October 1969: the “Vietnam Moratorium”, perhaps the height of the peace movement
  • 1970-71: two-thirds of US troops pulled out from Vietnam
  • January 1972: “Vietnamization” of the ground war means US no longer directly involved in troop combat
  • March 1973: last American combat soldiers leave South Vietnam, meaning for the United States war is officially over, although Saigon does not fall to North Vietnam until August 1975

Why is all this important? Rendering Jones Griffith’s and others as responsible for altering the course of world history is bad history, because placing their work into the war’s timeline shows they were part of an already existing anti-war movement, and American involvement ended for political reasons. Above all else, though, it sets false and impossible expectations for contemporary photojournalism. Present day practitioners are going to feel somewhat inadequate if they think there work is not halting contemporary conflict like their predecessors supposedly did.

But if we see that one of the great works of photojournalism was always conceived as a book, intended as an historic document, did not appear in the mainstream media, and was funded indirectly by payment from “images of Jacqueline Kennedy and Lord Harlech visiting Ankor Wat in Cambodia,” then we can appreciate that crucial parts of the so-called golden age of photojournalism might not differ as much from the present as we think.

Timeline sources:

For basic online information on the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, see PBS, Battlefield: Vietnam; Wikipedia; and The Anti-War Movement in the United States. For one of the most comprehensive accounts, see Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, which was also an excellent 13-part PBS TV series.

 

9 Responses to “Mythical power: Understanding photojournalism in the Vietnam War”

  1. A really excellent analysis and one I hope young photographers take note of before going on risky foreign adventures. I think overstating the influence photojournalism has encourages people to take financial and personal gambles, with the potential for tragic consequences.

    • Thanks…I think good photojournalism can achieve a lot, especially in terms of pointing to issues, but we have to be clear about its role and impact, and can’t recycle comfortable myths. I wouldn’t want good stories to go uncovered, but I think you are right that people need to carefully assess what they want to say and how they are going to say it before taking personal risks.

  2. It is important to acknowledge an earlier use of images by a US publication that shocked the “silent majority”. In June 1969 Life Magazine printed mug shots of every US soldier killed in a week of fighting and while I am sure time has colored my memory of the issue, it seems to me it sent a lighting bolt through the US consciousness. The press in this country, probably everywhere, does not “run point”, they reflect prevailing trends. By 1969 the anti-war movement was gaining ground and while not a majority movement was sufficient to give the editors at Life the courage to run the portraits. It was also enough to finally get US editors to start believing what the reporters on the ground were reporting back from the war. A couple of other thoughts: It’s not so much good photos, as much as content and circumstances. Life ran mug shots and the effect was electric. They absolutely were not good images. Compared to Vietnam coverage today’s war images are dominated by fighters and fighting as the center of the point of view. The images are powerful and they reflect this country’s current attitudes towards the military. They don’t challenge but support the public’s views.

    • Robert, sorry for the delay in acknowledging your excellent comment. The case of the Life soldier mug shots is very important, and its timing in 1969 is I think testament to the fact, as you say, that the strength of the anti-war movement emboldened the press. It is that sort of different ‘causal’ relationship that is well captured by Aric Mayer’s comments that I have posted here.

  3. Aric Mayer posted some excellent reflections about this post on his Facebook page (31 January) and I am copying and pasting them here.

    I especially like Aric’s focus on how Vietnam Inc.’s power comes from the conditions in which it was received – “…the anti-war movement in some ways makes the book’s success possible in the first place, and [perhaps] public sentiment against the war establishes some of the terms that the book will be received with?”

    Read Aric’s comments in full:

    “”Philip Jones Griffith’s book Vietnam Inc, published in 1971, is certainly one of the seminal and most fully realized works of any kind dealing with the Vietnam war.

    Phaidon’s marketing blurb for it says, “Vietnam Inc. was crucial in changing public attitudes in the United States, turning the tide of opinion and ultimately helping to put an end to the Vietnam War.”

    In a recent post titled “Mythical power: Understanding photojournalism in the Vietnam War”, David Campbell points out that this implies a causal relationship with the anti-war movement, meaning that the book caused a shift in public sentiment.

    If you follow David’s timeline, that causal relationship is hard to quantify given that the move to withdraw from Vietnam was well underway by 1971.

    Certainly Vietnam Inc exerts a great deal of power, both now and in the context of its reception in 1971. The question perhaps is not whether it is powerful, but in what ways does it both acquire and exert its power.

    Perhaps a better explanation (than direct causality) would be that changes in public attitudes and opinion were also already well under way and Vietnam Inc arrived as a fully formed engagement with that shift, both benefiting from it, in terms of public reception, and amplifying its intensity in terms of sentiment and a call to action. David sets the stage for this by pointing out that despite general perceptions to the contrary, media representations in the US were generally not anti-war and there would have been an opening there for Griffith’s book to interact with popular sentiments that were not being addressed in public media.

    Might a correlational connection between the book and the anti-war movement be a better explanation of its impact? Meaning that the anti-war movement in some ways makes the book’s success possible in the first place, and public sentiment against the war establishes some of the terms that the book will be received with?

    David also rightly points out that being accurate in assessing historical work has implications for contemporary practice. It seems to me that understanding as a point of distinction where photojournalism has a correlational relationship with public opinion and where it might have a causal relationship with public opinion would be a good place to start for establishing reasonable expectations for contemporary practice, as well as new working practices for achieving change.”

  4. I’m fascinated by this discussion and wanted to add that in addition to the anti-war movement, another important context from which Vietnam, Inc. certainly benefited was the so-called credibility gap of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, for which there is visual support as early as 1966 with the publication of David Levine’s cartoon of Johnson in which he transforms Johnson’s gall bladder scar, made famous through AP photographer Charles Tasnadi’s widely circulated photograph of Johnson lifting his shirt, into the shape of Vietnam. I write about these images as well as another iconic photograph of Johnson bent over with his hand clenched against his forehead as he listens to a tape from Vietnam for an upcoming issue of Photography & Culture. The interesting thing about this second iconic image is that over time many have attributed the assumed anguish displayed by Johnson in the photograph to his frustration over his mishandling of American involvement in the war in Vietnam. However, while the American public may have wanted Johnson to publicly acknowledge his complicity in the war, there is actually no evidence to support the widespread dissemination of this photograph (taken by White House photographer Jack Kightlinger in 1968) until around 1990, which coincidentally is when the LBJ Library & Museum was attempting to change public perceptions about Johnson’s historical legacy, especially in the wake of the rather bleak portrayal of Johnson in Robert Caro’s best selling biographies.

  5. Wasn’t “the living room war” supposed to be ironic — the war was brought into the domestic interior, but most of the audience paid it remarkably little attention, just one more stream in a torrent of images on the box in the corner of the room?

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