The Creeping Threshold
Photojournalist Eddie Adams never just walked into a room, he made an entrance, his swagger and hauteur enhanced by a wide-brimmed porkpie hat camouflaging his bald pate and a black cape casually flung around his shoulders, as though he'd just returned from the pampas with great stories to tell.
His international network of friends and colleagues indulged his drama and flamboyance because he did have great stories to tell, and because we knew he'd acquired them one hard-earned frame at a time.
In his half-century career he compiled a historic record of the days of our lives. He generously shared his insight and gifts with youngsters following behind. Best of all, he worked at his craft every day, even when he could no longer stand on feet that had taken him to the remotest corners of our troubled, beautiful planet.
When Eddie died in New York recently of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) at age 71, he left us some of the best pictures of his, or any other, generation. His portfolio includes innovative fashion spreads and insightful portraits, magazine feature stories showcasing his gifted "eye" as well as technical mastery, and an unflinching view of 13 wars.
But of all the thousands of frames he made during his career, it's a split-second grab shot capturing man's most inhumane act that is forever linked to Eddie Adams.
His 1968 photo of South Vietnam police chief Lt. Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head at point-blank range during the Tet Offensive won Eddie instant fame and a Pulitzer Prize.
Horst Faas, who was Adams' editor in the Saigon office of The Associated Press, said of the image: "I saw what I had never seen before: the perfect news picture, the perfectly framed and exposed 'frozen moment' of an event which I felt instantly would become representative for the brutality of the Vietnam War."
"Eddie's (execution) photo was technically perfect and taken at the exact right moment. It was also distributed like never before -- worldwide, almost instant, both sides of the ideological curtain -- and accompanied a news story that got No. 1 attention. All the conditions were right," added Faas, a two-time Pulitzer-winning photographer now retired and living in London.
Its intrinsic power and powerful message forced gate-keeping editors of "family" newspapers to breach a journalistic threshold leading straight to today's daily publication of horrific images in all mediums.
The impact of Loan's bullet still resonates in our up-close-and-personal mass-media view of airliners filled with people flying into the World Trade Center, New Yorkers jumping from the twin towers and American contractors' bodies hanging from an Iraqi bridge.
The execution picture, along with Nick Ut's 1972 AP photo of a napalm-burned little Vietnamese girl running down a road, are the two most powerful images of Vietnam. They also fueled antiwar sentiment that ultimately changed public policy and led to America's military withdrawal from Indochina.
Before 1968, newspapers had selectively printed photos of death and destruction, but mostly on inside pages. Major American papers, especially The New York Times, were squeamish about serving up graphic horror photos with their readers' breakfasts. But in a break with tradition, the Times' photo editor, John Morris, published Eddie's execution picture on Page 1.
Donald R. Winslow, editor of News Photographer, the magazine of the National Press Photographers Association, cited Kenneth Jareck's photo of an incinerated Iraqi tank commander, taken during the first Gulf War, as another milestone in what he calls the "creeping threshold" of what editors consider printable. Initially the photo was censored by the Pentagon but later published.
"As the violence increases and the nature of it becomes less 'civilized' and more base ... (competitive) editors must contend with graphic images that readers are going to see somewhere," Winslow said.
That "somewhere" increasingly is the Internet, where few bloggers self-censor language or images, and where international standards and mores offer stark contrast to America's glossier versions of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and war on terrorism. Graphic photos of recent beheadings in Iraq are readily available in various international mediums, whereas American news outlets mostly choose to show views leading up to, but not the murderous acts.
Bob Steele, ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said brutal images almost always trigger strong, negative responses in readers and viewers.
"Whether on the battlefield in Iraq, in the street of Jerusalem or in a school in Chechnya, violence is a story that must be told," Steele said. The conundrum is how to do it without exploitation and voyeurism, a threshold increasingly breached by competitive, profit-driven news outlets.
Faas thinks that Eddie's execution photo "has reached beyond the history of the Indochina War -- it stands today for the brutality of our last century."
And so far, of this one.
© Tad Bartimus
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