Title: Eddie Adams: Vietnam
Editor: Alyssa Adams
Narrator: Hal Buell
Publisher: Umbrage Editions
Reviewer: Marc Yablonka – AAA member
Vietnam was dubbed "the first television war," when in reality it could have just as easily been called "the first still photo war" for the accuracy in which Adams’ photos depicted the conflict.
April 25th , 1965: crying, a Vietnamese peasant woman clutches her enrobed baby, while her husband shields the head of their elder son, who looks toward the camera lens in utter fear. Meanwhile, a platoon of U.S. Marines, rifles at the ready, scour the village for signs of a company of communist Viet Cong reported to be in the area just south of Danang.
This picture was shot "while I was lying on my belly hiding from sniper fire," the late Associated Press photographer told the Bergen Record later that year. "The Marines rounded up all the villagers and questioned them. They got few answers. No one would tell them where the men of the village were—a typical reaction."
Such was the Vietnam War, and such is page after page of the telling, stark and gut-wrenching imagery of Umbrage Editions’ new book Eddie Adams: Vietnam, the effort of Adams’ widow Alyssa, who edited the work, and Hal Buell, former AP worldwide photo editor, who was responsible for the narration.
Staring at the black and white images, one after another, I’m reminded of the Eddie Adams I had the honor of hearing lecture at a gathering of members of the American Society of Media Photographers at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles several years ago. Adams was every bit the story teller as he was a photographer. But why should that be surprising? His remain among the images, like those of Malcolm Browne, Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Nick Ut and others, that best defined the Vietnam War for the American public back home as well as the world abroad.
Adams abhorred the fact that, not only was he chiefly known for taking his most famous photo, the Pulitzer Prize-winner of Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, former chief of police of Saigon, executing a flannel-shirted Viet Cong Nguyen Van Lem on the streets of Cholon, the Chinese quarter of the city. Adams felt directly responsible for ruining Loan’s life--or as he would often say--"Two lives were ruined that day"--with that photo. It, Adams felt, relegated Gen. Loan to the life of a pizza parlor owner in Virginia. But Loan did not share that sentiment, and Adams and he remained close until Loan’s death in 1998. Adams himself died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 2004.
On Feb. 1st , 1968, Adams and a TV crew from NBC News had heard that there was going to be, as his memoirs indicate in the book, "a little battle" near the An Quang Pagoda. But no one had any idea what was going to happen. Adams thought the captured VC was perhaps going to get roughed up and carted away. He knew from instinct that whenever you see police leading away a perpetrator from a crime scene, as a photojournalist, it is your job to follow the action. Which he, and the NBC crew, did.
Then he saw Gen. Loan reach for a ladies model snub-nosed .38 caliber Smith and Wesson and point it at Lem’s head. Even then Adams did not flinch because he knew threats are often issued at the point of a gun.
"When somebody goes for their pistol, they normally threaten the prisoner," Adam’s wrote in his memoirs. "I’ve taken pictures like that. Somebody threatens somebody…You’re going to do this or I’m going to shoot you. And nothing ever happens."
But then, in an instant, something did happen: Gen. Loan fired his gun. NBC captured Lem falling to the ground, all the while blood erupting from his head, something Adams turned away from and refused to watch.
"The Bullet was inside that VC’s head before I snapped that picture," he told those in attendance at the ASMP meeting. He also went on to stress the fact that what most of the world did not know at the time was that very same VC had, moments before, executed at close range the entire family--including the wife and children--of one of Gen. Loan’s lieutenants, a close friend. Adams, a Marine during the Korean War, who unlike most journalists covering Vietnam, believed in American foreign policy, badly needed and wanted that understood.
Adams went on to tell the ASMP gathering that he viewed his camera as protection from harm, and that, somehow, he felt safe behind the viewfinder. That sentiment was echoed again in Eddie Adams: Vietnam.
"The camera is like a shield and I will go into situations unarmed. I’ve never carried a weapon. I feel that the camera’s going to protect me, you know, and I think that’s a part of the survival too," his memoirs read.
Another part of survival for Eddie Adams was, apparently, his ability to use the "f" word with the 2nd person singular pronoun attached to it when those two words were called for. He regaled for the ASMP attendees a story that still brings a chuckle:
He and a reporter had gone down to Havana in 1984 on assignment to interview and photograph Cuban President Fidel Castro for Parade magazine. Both were kept holed up in their hotel rooms for two weeks without any signal that the interview would proceed. When Adams had had enough, over the protestations of the reporter, Adams uttered the two words and flew back home to New York.
Weeks later, in the middle of the night, came a knock on his door, he recalled. It was a representative from the Cuban Mission at the United Nations, who told him, "El Presidente would like to see you now." Said Adams, "F*** you! I waited two weeks down there. They kept me in my hotel, and he never showed up!"
"No, no senor. He really wants to see you now," insisted the emissary from mission.
So Adams grabbed the reporter and off the two went again to Havana, where the interview did occur this time, Adams shooting frame after frame. All at once, interview over, Castro got up to leave.
"But Presidente," interjected Adams, "I don’t have any photos."
Castro’s retort came in the near perfect English that, though a lot people don’t know it, Adams said at the time, Castro speaks: "But Eddie, what have you been doing with your camera?"
"Well, I want to get you in your element. What say you and I go jogging down on the beach?"
"But Eddie, Havana has a lot of beaches. I have a better idea. I’ll take you to my favorite lake where I go duck hunting--but you’d better not tell the CIA where it is!" Castro warned him.
When Adams returned to New York, he found in his exposed film, a photo of the two of them by that lake with dozens of dead ducks strewn at their feet. He took it upon himself to mail it to Castro with dim hopes of receiving the dictator’s autograph and even dimmer hopes of ever seeing the photo again. But see it again he did, and it was signed with the following inscription: "To my friend Eddie: I shot all the ducks. Your friend, Fidel."
Anecdotes are plentiful throughout the 223 page book. They come from the likes of many of Eddie Adams’ colleagues in Vietnam: the late David Halberstam, writer of a plethora of non-fiction, who covered the war for the New York Times and was tragically killed in an auto accident on his way to a lecture at Berkeley in 2007; former CNN field reporter Peter Arnett, who, like Adams, worked for the AP in Vietnam; their fellow AP correspondent George Esper; UPI , and later White House, photographer David Hume Kennerly; CBS News’s Morley Safer and Bob Schieffer, who originally went to Vietnam as a print reporter for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, and others.
Inescapably, many of their anecdotes focus, at least in part, on the photo Adams despaired over having taken:
"How ironic that Eddie’s most famous photo was also his cruelest," David Halberstam wrote. "How strange that a man whose extraordinary body of work celebrates the richness and complexity of the human family is best remembered for an image he captured detailing the ultimate act of inhumanity."
The photo of Gen. Loan "was one of the most shocking moments in journalism in the last hundred years. It was taken at a point when the country was already pretty disillusioned about the war, and the politicians were also becoming disillusioned. In a sense, it was nail in the coffin of Vietnam," Morley Safer wrote.
Said Peter Arnett: "I told Eddie that what he captured was a moment of truth about the war. The picture was a tangible reality that came to characterize the whole conflict…but Eddie, Mr. Patriot, just would not accept that. He enjoyed winning the Pulitzer Prize as well as the fame that came with it, but in his heart, he felt that he had let the country down."
While its priced at $50 off the shelf (prices vary through Amazon.com), Eddie Adams: Vietnam (ISBN # 13: 9781884167966), will not let anybody down. It is a must own for ex-military, Vietnam veterans, students of both the Vietnam War and photojournalism.
Eddie Adams yearned to be known and appreciated for more than just the photo that his friends--indeed an entire generation who lived through the Vietnam War--will never forget. With Eddie Adams: Vietnam, that will be entirely possible.
Winner of the 2009 American Authors Association's Golden Quill Award!
Visit the publisher's website: Umbrage Editions