From the depression years of the 1930s to the arrival of the roving TV cameraman in the late 1960s the photojournalist was seen as the romantic and daring reporter who sent news from the battle fronts and disaster areas of the world.
The phrase ‘famous photographer’ used in the bizzarest of circumstances today, comes from those four decades when the public looked to mass market picture magazines for still images by star photojournalists like Robert Capa to add depth to their understanding of the major news stories.
FROM PHARMACIST TO GLOBE TROTTER
Born in 1936 in the Welsh border town of Rhuddlan just as this golden age began, Philip Jones Griffiths started his photographic career at the Golden Sands Holiday Camp in Rhyl before being dispatched by his parents to study pharmacy at Liverpool University. However the young Griffiths had the sort of questioning mind that drew him back to photography, and he began part time work for the then Manchester Guardian as the final decade of the golden era of photojournalism was about to commence.
In 1959 Philip Jones Griffiths moved south to a London emerging from post war gloom where he survived with pharmacy work at Boots the Chemist in Piccadilly Circus and then with freelance photographic assignments from The Sunday Times and The Observer newspapers. It was in 1962 with The Observer that he scored his first major success.
At the time there was a brutal war in Algeria between French colonial forces and the Front de Libération Nationale or FLN. Defeated by the communist Viet Minh in 1954 the French had departed their former colonies in South East Asia effectively handing over their interests in the region to the Americans. Not without coincidence the French then faced a new liberation movement in North Africa later that same year.
By 1962 the Algerian war was in it’s end game but Griffiths had heard of the regroupement program that the French imposed on remote communities. People were placed in fortified villages and the French napalmed the surrounding countryside to create a free fire zone without sustenance for guerilla forces to survive on.
What intrigued him was that none of the photojournalists hanging around the bars and cafés of Algeirs had between them managed a single image of these camps.
Rising to the challenge the 25 year old flew to North Africa, trekked into the Atlas Mountains with a platoon of FLN soldiers, and became the first photographer to record a camp de regroupment. Delighted, The Observer rewarded Griffiths for his initiative with a full page of pictures, the first time this had ever been done by a national newspaper.
FINDING PURPOSE IN THE EAST
By the early 1960s the immediacy of television had killed off the weekly British picture magazines Picture Post and Lilliput with their predominantly black and white imagery, but for a new generation of photojournalists the colour supplements had arrived with pages to fill and money to spend. Philip Jones Griffiths soon found himself travelling the world, and living the dream. At times it was a dream filled with danger.
The Sunday Times Colour Section was launched in 1962 to be followed by The Observer and Daily Telegraph magazines in 1964. The young Welshman worked for all of them as well as for Life and Colliers Magazine in the States.
But a life travelling the globe on transit visas began to pall and like many great photographers before him Griffiths resolved to focus his energies on one great project “so I more or less decided the important thing to do was to get passionate about something, and you didn’t have to be a genius in 66 to work out that there was something very important happening in Vietnam.”
With a couple of commissions in Singapore and one in South Vietnam from The Sunday Times Griffiths flew East for what was to become the defining chapter of his career.
Realising that everything he was told in South Vietnam couldn’t possibly be true the trained pharmacist methodically visited every province in the country to find out what was happening for himself.
“Pharmacy teaches you a lot about rationality, about logic and cause and effect. Of course you respond emotionally – all Welshmen respond emotionally – but at the same time there is an overlay, a sort of explanation of why you feel the way you feel.”
With time Griffiths developed a deep affection for the Vietnamese people, recognising in the peasant watchfulness of Vietnamese villagers the same outlook of rural Wales where, “you spend most of your time looking and trying to work things out, not talking.”
Philip’s home town of Rhuddlan, located at the lowest fording point on the River Clwyd a short distance from the North Wales coast was for centuries a focal point for the battle to control the Celtic Welsh by the prevailing powers to the east. Ruins of two castles which once dominated the settlement remain to this day.
“When you have a small country that has been under attack for many years what you have to do is hone the techniques to persuade the invader to leave because you will never be strong enough to push them into the sea. The Vietnamese were very adept at persuading the Americans that it was time to leave.”
In 1966 he joined the Magnum Photo Agency as an associate, and with some cunning scooped the world’s media with images of Jacqueline Kennedy and Lord Harlech visiting Ankor Wat in Cambodia. Sale of these images meant he could prolong his stay in Vietnam, and produce images of the impact of the conflict on the Vietnamese people. 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. with it’s graphic black and white photographs exposes a conflict in which everyone at it’s merciless centre are victims of forces they do not understand and cannot control. Turn the pages and the consequences of war are laid bare. This is a voice from a sourer world where a conflict with lost ideals and lost direction turns in on itself in a downward spiral of destruction.
Although the images show dignity in suffering, as had the work of an earlier generation of war photographers, now they are accompanied by a scream of rage. Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote “not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths.”
Captions are pared and incisive “General Kinnard of the 1st Cav. proposed “It occurred to me that perhaps we would be able to identify the guerilla – a farmer by day and a fighter by night – by the dark circles under his eyes.” It is not known how many people died because they yawned.”
Because he could not afford the cost of sending long telegrams to Magnum Griffiths had become expert at expressing complex situations in a few words.
His telegrams were pleading for commissions. At times he had to choose between a bowl of soup and a roll of Tri-X. Then when he missed out on a big spread in Life because he was working in black and white he began shooting Ektachrome X and High Speed Ektachrome colour film.
The problem with Ektachrome X was a dreadful green colour cast, so the erstwhile pharmacist built a box in which to “incubate” his films. The box was painted black and stood on a flat roof next to his room at the Hotel Royale on Nguyen Hue Street. There the film warmed in the Saigon sun until the cast had gone.
In fact, many of Griffiths’ most famous photographs (the wounded woman lying covered with blood with a South Vietnamese soldier kneeling next to her) were originally shot on colour film ripened in the black box. However Magnum mislaid many of the colour slides from Griffiths early years in Vietnam – an irretrievable loss – which led him to devise a quality 5×4 duping system for transparencies with photographer John Bulmer. No enlarger had adequate illumination so they utilised the landing light from a Boeing 707 (GB Colour Services in London lasted from 1968 to 1973).
Hanging out with other journalists was not his thing, and the suprise in Vietnam on the publication of Vietnam Inc. was enormous. No other journalists had seen Griffiths at work, he had quietly got on to produce his indictment by himself.
South Vietnam’s American backed President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu was heard to say “let me tell you there are many people I don’t want back in my country, but I can assure you Mr Griffiths name is at the top of the list”. Sitting in the kitchen of his basement flat in London, Philip points out the irony that Thiệu came to Britain and lived in Richmond “just down the road from here”. (President Thiệu also denounced the BBC, and finally the United States before resigning as President of South Vietnam a week before the fall of Saigon, in April 1975. He moved to London then Massachusetts, where he died in 2001).
For Griffiths the idea that the press lost the Vietnam War is nonsense, because the press were always way behind the people. Life he said, when it was politically correct to do so, ran a story shot by Co Rentmeester in an American Veteran Administration hospital of disabled soldiers lying next to dustbins, “guys lying in their own excrement and blood”. That was the real turning point, but the people already knew. Life Magazine published Our Forgotten Wounded on May 22nd 1970.
He continues “One of the myths about America is that they actually care about their fighting men. The lie to that is they put them in these dreadful hospitals where they are in totally inhuman conditions” and cites the Walter Read Army Medical Centre in Washington and The Washington Post article of February 2007. “Everybody knew just how bad it was.”
“The sub text to the whole thing is because The Washington Post got the story the New York Times went to great lengths to minimise it and dismiss it, because they got scooped. They are like children.”
Life Magazine folded as a weekly in 1972 and with it the golden age of the photojournalist came to an end, and the era of celebrity journalism and portraiture began its inexorable rise. Vietnam Inc. published in 1971 is arguably the greatest, and certainly the most effective book of photojournalism published in that period.
TO NEW YORK FOR MAGNUM and THE ROLE OF THE PHOTOJOURNALIST
After leaving Vietnam Griffiths based himself in Bangkok before moving on to New York for a five year stint as president of Magnum. This, despite his later criticisms of the agency, is something he is immensely proud of.
Some of Philip’s work from this period was for Geo magazine which required colour images and Griffiths had to transport heavy lighting equipment around to get the required results out of Kodachrome 64 when shooting indoors. But again he decided to convert his best colour images to black and white, and then to return to black and white film for his continuing testament from South East Asia.
However, more than twenty years were to pass before his post-war work in Vietnam was drawn together into two books Vietnam at Peace (2005) and Agent Orange: “Collateral Damage” in Vietnam (2003).
Agent Orange presents the side effects of the 20 million gallons of herbicide sprayed by the US military on the forests and cultivated areas where the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong forces were a threat to American interests. The desired effect of the chemical was to remove foliage that provided cover and to destroy crops, but Agent Orange also contained Dioxin a chemical of high toxicity that causes cancer in humans. There is overwhealming evidence that it also disrupts the normal development of the human foetus.
The book shows the victims of chemical warfare: children without eyes, with deformed heads, no arms and neurological damage. Like Vietnam Inc. this is no coffee table book, but a book that should be in every school and university library where the effects of conflict are studied. On The Digital Journalist site Griffiths says “a lot of what passes for concerned photography is not that removed from police photography… there are certain things you have to draw attention to. That’s my task as a photographer.”
THE AMBIGUITIES OF THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION
The 1990s saw the beginnings of a period of radical change right across the photographic industry, a period of transition which continues to this day : the arrival of digital imagery.
In terms of meaningful photography Griffiths does not worry about the quantity of images so much as the quality “there are millions and billions of sheets of paper in the world and millions and billions of ball point pens and pencils, but there’s only a handful of poets, great poets”.
But to Philip the problems of digital photography lie in the technology itself. The instability of the recording medium, the constantly evolving nature of the software that retrieves the images, and most importantly the lack of proof that a picture is genuine, all concern him.
That said Griffiths does believe that photography can and should still move people emotionally, and as always, its importance as a historical record must not be underestimated.
“From the power elite’s point of view photography is something they cannot control, they thought they were doing quite well until digital photography came along, and with it Abu Ghraib. That was the big wake up call.”
“There are pictures produced which are very, very shocking in as much as they reveal just how the American empire on the rampage right now is behaving. Those pictures cannot be censored because that’s not the nature of the system.” What does happen is people are flooded with so many images that in the end they are confused and the powerful images loose their effect.
At the same time there is the dumbing down of the media, and picture magazines in particular. Why ? Because a less questioning public is more easy to control in both commercial terms and in political terms. “The thinking mind doesn’t sit well with people who either want to make you buy things that you don’t need at prices that you can’t afford or they want you to believe lies essentially, in political terms.”
MAGNUM TODAY AND THE FUTURE
Philip’s five years as president of Magnum in the 1980s is illustration of his commitment to the Magnum ideals of independence and integrity but the old photojournalist is troubled by the great agency’s direction since then. “Magnum Photos was made up of a group of people that had something to say. That was the case, and it is still the case with respect to certain photographers, but in general the agency has been dumbed down to the point where the trivial, the meaningless, the candy floss, the visual entertainment is well and truly established and the agency is being destroyed from within. The Barbarians are within the walls and it is extraordinary sad to see what is happening.”
“Of the young photographers we have in Magnum there are a handful who do important work and amongst the old timers there are still some who do very important work” but as a whole, Philip says “they’ve developed an addiction for triviality.”
Philip baulks at the idea of giving people what they want. “That is an obscene concept, Magnum has always done the exact opposite. We have given them what we think they should see. We have never followed, we have led. That’s been our great strength that’s why we are still here 60 years later. We have never said we will dumb down our pictures because society is being dumbed down.”
“The number of times I’ve heard gallery owners say the people on the board are all art photographers and nobody comes to their shows apart from a few friends, and I have to beg them to let us put on at least one photojournalism show every year because people flock in. And that’s how we make our money. That’s how we pay all our bills.”
Photojournalism still matters and continues to be important. “Should you show pictures of starving people in Darfur ? Yes it’s part of what’s happening in the early part of the third millennium, it’s historical.”
At 71 Philip Jones Griffiths’ passion for photography remains undimmed, as does his passion for life, and although cancer knocked him low he has bounced back and delights in the company of his doctor and the nurse at Hammersmith Hospital who checks his blood, both of who’s fathers fought with the FLN in Algeria. In front of the hospital he chuckles as he passes at the name of the sculptor who’s work was chosen to grace the entrance. What could be more inappropriate than the work of Sarah Tombs?
The recent exhibition at the Trolley Gallery in London Philip Jones Griffiths: Middle Years showed that his best work is not confined to South East Asia, yet as seems inevitable the author of perhaps the greatest book of photojournalism ever published has been drawn to the East again and is busy working on his next project, a book on Cambodia.
UNDERSTANDING CONFLICT : Philip Jones Griffiths describes Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle for Algiers (1966) as “totally brilliant, if people wanting the war had seen the film and understood it there would have been no Iraq, there would have been no Vietnam even. Even more so (the book) The Quiet American which Graham Green wrote in the early 50s. Green was so incredibly perceptive. And of course the other great, great writer who wrote a book which would certainly have prevented the Vietnam war had people read it was Norman Lewis’ A Dragon Apparent.”
BY PHILIP JONES GRIFFITHS :
• Vietnam Inc. Collier Books (1971)
• Dark Odyssey with text by Murray Sayle, Aperture (1996)
• Vietnam Inc. New edition with foreword by Noam Chomsky, Phaidon Press (2001)
• Agent Orange “Colleteral damage” in Vietnam Trolly Books (2003)
• Vietnam at Peace Trolly Books (2005)
PHILIP JONES GRIFFITHS (1936-2008)
• Philip Jones Griffiths died in London on the morning of March 19th 2008 after a prolonged battle with cancer. “He gave to photojournalism it’s moral soul,” wrote Magnum President, Stuart Franklin in tribute on the agency’s web-site.
• Video interview with Philip Jones Griffiths by Bob Dannin, New York, January 2002 on Musarium.