Greg Davis 1948 - 2003
June 2003

by Philip Jones Griffiths

"Photography is a way of seeing the beautiful, desolate and deadly human spectacle, bringing some clarity to the complicated business of life. A historical record of sorts. Giving pause for thought." -- Greg Davis

The world of photography is a poorer place today. Greg Davis, one of the most important photographers of recent years has passed away. Greg lived in Tokyo, and it was there that he died with Masako, his wife of 33 years, at his side.

Greg was an American of Russian descent, born in California. His maternal grandfather was, oddly enough, considering Greg's inborn contrariness, a general in the Tsar's army. So after the Revolution the family left St. Petersburg and headed to America.

Like many teenagers in the sixties Greg found himself in Vietnam. Later he would explain, "Vietnam at war was akin to an Alice in an evil Wonderland, which was to be the death of innocence." The three years he spent "in-country" not only turned him into an anti-war activist but also ensured a lifelong distrust of all authority. He once wrote a fascinating description comparing the life of the Asian peasant with that of a businessman. "Who is the freer, the man in a business suit or the peasant farmer? The communist or the capitalist? And what kind of freedom are we talking about any way? This started me on a road of discovery that is unending and often delightful."

After Vietnam, Greg went back to the States briefly, quickly got disillusioned and returned to Asia, settling in Japan. He discovered photography and set about exploring other countries. I first met him 25 years ago in Seoul where he had "gone local" preferring to sleep on the floor of a Korean hotel during his assignment. This, I remember thinking, was a very different kind of American. As he put it so eloquently. " I became an exile. A voluntary one, for sure. I have largely escaped from the constraints and bonds of my birth, language, culture and religion. This is essential to my photography. It gives me the pleasure of finding things out. A mirror to critically hold up against all my putative ideas."

Greg was a born anarchist and libertarian. He had a keen moral sense and was quick to detect injustice and with his camera reveal the perpetrators. He was exceptionally kind and generous. As his colleague, Peter Charlesworth put it, "He was generous in all senses of the word; with his praise, with his wallet and with the sharing of his contacts and knowledge. Greg rarely had a bad word to say about anyone, unless of course they were politicians, petty officials or bureaucrats and then he would give you an earful." And, I could add to the list, the occasional picture editor. My favourite story was about the usual 3AM call from New York checking on a caption for a Vietnam picture. "There's a barefooted woman with a triangular hat standing on some green stuff, is it a golf course?" Greg patiently explained that the "green stuff" was a rice field. "That's strange," replied the picture editor, "The rice I get at the supermarket is white."

Greg was in many ways part of the old school of photojournalism. He believed his art required form AND content. Often, when we travelled together, the talk would be about the light, the approach, or the best angle, but the major discussion would always come down to, "What does it mean!" He strove for eloquence in his pictures. He wanted his photographs to speak out, even, shout out a message.

Being an avid reader, Greg, when in Bangkok spent more time in bookshops than elsewhere. He accumulated a vast library on all subjects Asian whilst doing research for his stories. His journalism talents were well honed. He checked in, sometimes on a daily basis, with his contacts all over Asia. He relentlessly pressured the North Korean officials in Tokyo until they gave him a visa. As a result Greg produced the most comprehensive coverage of North Korea.

For over 20 years he covered every major story in a triangle bounded by Kamchatka, Khazakhstan and Djakarta. His pictures have appeared in every major magazine in the world, especially in TIME from 1988 to 1989 while he was their contract photographer for Asia.

For me, through Greg's death, I have lost a best friend and a colleague with whom I would not only discuss the technical side of our profession (does the 35mm Summicron really have better bokeh than the aspheric 1.4?) but, more importantly, exchange views on the nefarious behavior of governments and the powerful and how best to record their misdeeds for bored editors, or in the least, for history.

Recently an old friend of ours admitted, "You know, I sometimes thought some of Greg's theories were a little crazy but now, wow, he was the one who got it right!" Today, more than ever, the world needs people like Greg Davis; photographers with inquiring minds tinged with scepticism.

Now, every time the phone rings, I expect to hear his voice as I've done almost daily for the past 25 years.

The silence deafens my heart . . .

© Philip Jones Griffiths


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