The Compassion of Eddie
Feb. 1, 1968. I am in the NBC bureau in Saigon at 5:30 a.m., getting a crew of Howard Tuckner, Vo Huynh and Vo Suu together for a run at the An Quang Pagoda. I had learned from a U.S military source that an assault would take place against a rumored Viet Cong hospital inside the compound.
The outer door swings open and with all his usual enthusiasm, Eddie Adams of the AP, our next-door neighbor in the Eden Building, cameras hanging everywhere from his neck, bursts into the office and asks where we are going. I say the An Quang Pagoda. Can I hitch a ride? he asks. Of course, there is always room for one more, I say.
The An Quang Pagoda is where Eddie Adams will take the series of remarkable and powerful photos of Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan pulling his pistol and summarily executing what he believed was a Viet Cong. The picture reverberates around the world as the icon of a war in crisis. It continues to have an impact to this day.
After we covered that event, there would be another the next day, and each day after, until the war ended. We went through the war; saw each other here and there, had a drink or two, and we never discussed his picture or the Pulitzer Prize he won. Eddie did not enjoy talking about the photo or his role in it because he believed it made too much of him when the event counted more. He believed, as I and many others do, that the man Loan killed in cold blood was a Viet Cong. He also understood, as do most of us, that Loan's summary execution of the man was profoundly immoral.
We went our separate ways to different parts of the world, and to different lives. In journalism, if you are around long enough, though, lives always intersect again.
In 1989, I am sitting at O'Hare Airport in Chicago waiting for my plane to New York after producing a story for NBC's "Sunday Today." O'Hare, easily the busiest airport in the world, is where you can run into anyone, and often do. I see Eddie Adams walking by the United Airlines' waiting area. He had been giving a talk at a Midwestern university. We see each other. We hug - Eddie liked to hug - and we talked. Then we parted because each of us had to make a flight. Before going, he turned to me and said with an affectionate smile, "It's your fault, you know. If I didn't come into your bureau that morning, if I hadn't been there at the pagoda, I have no idea where my life would have gone and where I'd be now." It was his way of saying thanks. With an even brighter smile, he moved off to catch his plane.
I knew what he meant. He had the presence of mind, a great eye, and much nerve, to take those remarkable photos that morning. Despite having covered more wars than anyone has a right to count, what everyone refers to as the Loan shooting, in some ways, haunted Eddie all his life. Eddie understood the photo was circumstance. He was in the right place at a telling moment in the history of the Vietnam War. Or any war. Everyone who knew him knows he never wanted to talk about that morning, its effect on General Loan's life, his life and the icons his pictures became. When I was with Eddie, I honored his reticence and we did not talk about that part of his past.
Eddie and I did not see each other again until the mid-1990s, when I worked for ABC News Productions. His daughter Amy also worked there. Eddie would come visit her and we would talk, catching up on family and friends. Our talks always ended with the desire to work together making documentaries. Eddie said he had many ideas that he thought would make good films. That never happened because I had a day job, as did he, and feeding mouths had first call.
By 2003, no longer with a network, I worked only for myself when Eddie and I started talking again. With my partner, Eileen Douglas in Douglas/Steinman Productions, I went to an event at his studio to honor photographers for their work in Iraq. This time we talked seriously about making a film together. After that, he and I had several long sessions at his home above his studio in the converted New York City bathhouse he owned in the East Village. We drank many cups of strong black coffee and said whatever was on our minds. Eddie talked compassionately about life - more important to him than technique and the way he went about shooting a project, whether hard news or one the many fascinating portraits he did for magazines.
Eddie wanted to do a film he called, "The Last Ugly Kid," about the pro bono work a doctor in Dallas is doing with reconstructive surgery on children from around the world, children born with distorted and truly hideous features. Eileen and I took to the idea enthusiastically. Eddie had already shot a moving short pilot. Eileen Douglas and I had a meeting with Eddie, in which I let him know the challenges in making the film: the length of time required to shoot it, the editing, the cost, and so on. Eddie said go for it.
While at work to prepare "The Last Ugly Kid," Eddie and I talked on the phone discussing that film and whatever else came to our minds. For those interested, he did talk about technique but as an afterthought. Technique had become second nature and sometimes impossible for him to put into words when so much of what he did came through careful planning followed by instinct, knowing when to squeeze the shutter, knowing that when he did, he came up with the picture he wanted. Do not get me wrong; Eddie's understanding of technique and its application in all its forms was something he worked very hard to maintain. He once said to me that when he looked through the lens, he became the subject and when that happened in the split second that it did, he knew then to take the picture that needed to come from inside him. He, as all craftsmen, was not always satisfied with the results. But he knew enough to keep trying until he got it right, something he did more often than not.
There was something else, though. Empathy for the underdog, the dispossessed, the forgotten, drove him harder than anything else, knowing as he did that anything accomplished to help the disenfranchised of the world meant more than what lens to use, how to light a portrait, or how, even, to support up-and-coming photojournalists, another true passion of his. Some of the work he prized most had to do with the photos he made of the boat people from Vietnam and when he wandered through refugee camps in different parts of the world.
The life he prized most was his family and his children. He worried about the legacy he would leave and he hoped they would understand what he did with his life as seen through his photos.
So after all his years as a major photojournalist, I came to understand that compassion motivated Eddie more than anything else I could sense in the hours we spent talking about life and the lives we led. Though we spent years apart, and only came together now and then, that day in February 1968 in Saigon bound us together forever. I am only sad that Eddie and I did not start talking seriously sooner. His compassion made so strong an impression. That is what I will miss most about Eddie Adams.
© Ron Steinman
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