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photography politics

Mythical power: Understanding photojournalism in the Vietnam War

VietnamInc

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.

 

Categories
photography politics

Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practice

What would a critical photographic response to the war in Afghanistan involve?

The is no single answer to that question, but having both contributed to and learnt from a workshop on the Burke + Norfolk show at the Tate Gallery in London this past week, it is one we have to pursue.

To begin to answer that question requires that the frames – the cultural, political and aesthetic frames that produce what Judith Butler calls “perceptible reality” – be exposed. First up is the fact that a set of myths about the Vietnam war and the role of the media in that conflict continue to shape how both the US military and its critics approach the imaging of war.

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 is a necessary step in ending it.

For the military the lesson learnt was that they need a better way of regulating the media, which resulted in a series of schemes culminating in the system of embedding implemented for the invasion of Iraq. For the critics, the conclusion was that showing an unsanitised view of war is the basis for any critical response. As a result, much of the debate around the imaging of Afghanistan has been locked into a stand off about the pros and cons of embedding.

The problem with this framing of the options 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 national frame.

This is significant for photojournalism’s understanding of it’s historical role and potential power. 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 media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority coverage.

Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’ obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective. Embedding is one such frame, but it is located within frames too, especially the frame of historical memory that has mythologized aspects of Vietnam. There is also the general journalistic frame that means, in the absence of any radical divisions amongst the governing political elite, the mainstream media presents what Hallin calls a “sphere of legitimate consensus” through which debate is prescribed and critical alternatives are marginalised.

Burke + Norfolk embodies one critical response to Afghanistan – bringing the historical frame into view by putting contemporary images about the allied war machine (some of them produced while embedded) into a relationship with nineteenth century imperial portrayals (reviewed here by Russell Watson). At the Tate symposium, Mishka Henner offered another strategy.

Although a documentary photographer, Henner is now working with “photography from the world” (images produced by others) as much as “photography of the world” (his own practice). He has produced a series of creative works from Google Earth and Google Street View databases. Using the latter, No Man’s Land is an insightful project that both reveals the marginal existence of sex workers and comments on the aesthetics of landscape photography. It is, he says, part of an effort to critique visual discourses through editing and curation that re-purposes their meaning.

 

Henner is now mining the US Department of Defense photographic collection looking for categories of images produced by particular stylistic frames. In a form of ‘coding’ that is categorising pictures throughout the identification of repeated styles, he is exposing what I think could be called the “sphere of legitimate aesthetics” through which Afghanistan is being made perceptible. Henner has uncovered hundreds of images that show, for example, men and machines silhouetted against golden sunsets (what he calls “Empire Sunset” and what Beierle and Keijser called “Sunset Soldiers“), soldiers extending hands to children (“The Friend”), and military doctors treating sick civilians (“The Healer”).

Simon Norfolk’s exposure of the historical frame, and Mishka Henner’s and Beierle and Keijser’s delineation of the stylistic frame, are new critical responses, though of course they are not the only ones. They won’t end the war, because no picture has the power to do so. The cliche that certain photographs can by themselves change the world is another of the myths that needs to be dispensed with. But photographs do force us to think hard about what is happening and why. And as Barthes observed in Camera Lucida “ultimately, Photography is subversive, not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”

First photo: Life, April 16, 1965

Second photo: Sunset soldiers, February 24, 2011