The Digital Journalist
Remembering Eddie Adams
October 2004

by Dick Swanson

I first met Eddie Adams in January of 1968. I worked for Life magazine then and was on my way back to Saigon from Hong Kong. We sat next to each other on Air Vietnam and, as we flew south, little did we know that we were going back to events that eventually led to Eddie's Pulitzer Prize and a turning point in the war.

The Tet Offensive in Saigon began in the early morning hours of Jan. 31st, 1968, and our paths crossed in the chaotic streets of Saigon and Cholon over the next few days as we covered the attack. On Feb. 1st, Eddie took his picture of Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a VC prisoner. It became " the shot "seen" around the world," an image he grew to dislike.

As Eddie wrote in Time magazine, "The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?'''

The picture of Gen. Loan shooting a VC prisoner and pictures of the attack on the American Embassy shocked the American public and started the erosion of public support for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Eddie was much more comfortable talking about his Vietnamese Boat People story or any of his thousands of other assignments - except one. The one assignment that I always tweaked him about was the presidential trip we were on together that put me on his well-known and popular "shit list."

I went to see Eddie in August and reminded him once again of our trip with President Ford on his 10-day European trip in May 1975. I was working for People magazine then and by the time we arrived in Salzburg, Austria, we were tired of doing the "get on the bus, get off the bus" shuffle for the president's arrivals at various European capitals. Besides, I had made the pictures I was assigned to get and was basically along for the ride at this point (the phrase, "It's never over till it's over," was never more meaningful and was an essential lesson).

It was cold and drizzling outside and I said to Eddie that we had hundreds of pictures of arrivals and departures, and suggested we stay on the bus and keep each other company. Through the steamy bus windows we watched in horror as President Ford stumbled and fell on the last steps as he departed from Air Force One. Eddie was absolutely beside himself as he realized he had to tell John Durniak, Time's wild motivator and frenetic, beloved director of photography, that he had missed the shot. (he no doubt remembered in horror Durniak saying over drinks, half in jest, half in motivation, that if you don't come back with great pictures, it's because you're not an interesting person).

Later, in the press center, Eddie paced in front of a phone bank, dreading the call back to the States he had to make. I loitered nearby and overheard his end of the conversation. He took full blame, not mentioning that the idiot Swanson, a once-trusted friend who had been "down the road" with him, had talked him into staying on the bus.

I asked Eddie what Durniak had said. Durniak, with his own sense of humor, had told Eddie not to worry, that he just knew that AP would have the picture.

The disease had stolen Eddie's ability to talk but not his sense of the absurd. He communicated by typing on a keyboard which then spoke his words in a tinny voice - very frustrating for him. As I reminded him once again of that long ago event, his eyes sparkled and he grinned slyly as he typed in, "Screw you, Swanson!"

I rarely saw him the last few years, but when our paths crossed, I was reminded that there are people in this profession who make it meaningful to be considered a peer.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Eddie was an immodest man with much to be immodest about.

© Dick Swanson