Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. is a masterpiece, a classic work of photojournalism.
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:
Philip Jones Griffiths’ “Vietnam Inc.” was crucial in the movement to put an end to the Vietnam War–>bit.ly/VnmA6l
— Magnum Photos (@MagnumPhotos) January 25, 2013
In response I wrote:
— David Campbell (@davidc7) January 29, 2013
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:
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.
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.