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philip jones griffiths - saigon, 1968 [***]
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 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 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a press photographer who sought public change – he did the work for himself, was motivated by the idea of producing an historical document, and went to Vietnam with a contract for a book.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.
[Philip Jones Griffiths’] 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.
robert cumbert/comments [robert cumbert]; “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.”