12 March 2008

Still Life

Once you have seen this photo, you never forget it. Ernie Adams was the photographer, and he took it 40 years ago last month, as the Tet offensive was underway in the Vietnam War. It shows South-Vietnamese General Nguyan Ngoc executing a member of the Vietcong in the streets of Saigon, without a trial.

This picture, along with a handful of others from that war, changed history. It helped swing the attitude of the American people against the war.

It may be in black-and-white, but the issues are far more complex than were perceived at the time. In fact the discussion has got more heated since, as shown by a fascinating, heated debate at the London Times last month. Their headline was:

Which of these men did the photographer think was a hero?

Adams regretted the damage it did to General Ngoc’s reputation. The victim was far from innocent, but the publication of the photo had the opposite effect to what either shooter – executioner or photographer – intended. When combined with famous images such as the naked napalm child, the Vietnam War looked indefensible.

By contrast, Robert Capa’s images of D-Day, blurry as they are, showed the dedication and sacrifice of those landing on Omaha Beach. No one complained, though there have been decades of debate and misinformation about another famous image by Capa, the “falling soldier” shot (in both senses) during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

For years there have been sceptics saying that the photo was posed. The most prominent among the sceptics is Phillip Knightley, author of the highly regarded book The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam, the War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker, almost a voluntary set-text among journalists since it came out in 1975.

When evidence was produced in 1998 that suggested otherwise, and identified the soldier as Federico Borrell GarcĂ­a, who had indeed died in the battle, Knightley stood his ground: “The famous photograph is almost certainly a fake – Capa posed it,” he said. And, petulantly, “Frederico could have posed for the photograph before he was killed.”

Since then, the author of the definitive biography of Capa, Richard Whelan, has gone to extraordinary lengths to prove the photo’s veracity. This essay tells the whole story; Whelan even gets a police forensic photographer to examine the “pose”.

And if that wasn’t enough, just last month a suitcase full of undeveloped negatives by Capa was discovered. It shows the before and after images of the “falling soldier”. The New York Times turned it into a slide-show so that we can decide. Those who have read Phillip Knightley’s autobiography A Hack’s Progress tell me it’s a great read. But he hasn’t responded to the evidence about the “falling soldier” photo. Zealots have right on their side, so are never wrong. Ask John Pilger or Michael Moore.

These are the best of times and the worst of times in photo-journalism. Never before have so many great images been shot. But it is harder than ever for those images to have the kind of impact that Adams’ execution shot did in 1968.

The photo journalism is out there – all over the web, in lavish photo-galleries and slide-shows – but is rarely on our front pages. These days, the napalm or execution photos would only be seen by those who sought them out, rather than being chosen by astute photo editors to make an immediate impact.

I despair when I see quality magazines that once championed photo journalism now making do with endless bland images from agencies. The publishers are tight-fisted, so the photo librarians cut corners: there are plenty of gritty agency shots that aren’t “posed by models). The result is a vanilla magazine, from cover to back page. TIME may be a shadow of its former self, but it still makes an effort on all fronts.

Impulse buyers in the supermarket may be more interested in stories that change their cholesterol than their intellect. But free newspaper colour supplements are where hard news can be presented with great design, without affecting newsstand sales. We don’t take the opportunity here; instead proprietors are more interested in editorial that flows nicely around cosmetics ads.

But New Zealand has punched above its weight in photo-journalism, not just historic figures such as Brian Brake, George Silk and Robin Morrison, but contemporary photographers such as Glenn Jowitt, Bruce Connew, Jocelyn Carlin and John McDermott: photographers who don't emulate Vanity Fair.

There are dozens of courses in photography in New Zealand, and plenty of role models. But with the disinterest from the publishing industry, are these students being conned out of their money? Where are the jobs?

(More on this soon, including an encounter with a legendary photo-editor and friend of Capa's. The pop-art RFK cover is a graphic rather than a photo, but brilliantly shows his upward ascent in the primaries. Obama's rise reminded me of it. But the RFK-related TIME cover two weeks later, in June 1968, was equally unforgettable: it showed a handgun.)

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