The Digital Journalist
Horst Faas' "Visible War"
July 2005

by Michael Ebert and Julie Wallstab

EDITOR'S NOTE: Horst Faas, The Digital Journalist's Editor for Europe, was stricken by a blood clot on his spine while directing a workshop for Vietnamese photojournalists in Hanoi in May (see last month's issue). He was paralyzed from the chest down, and is now in rehabilitation in a Bavarian hospital. Last month the German Society of Photography (DGPh), Germany's most influential cultural organization for photography, honored him with its Dr. Erich Salomon Award. The award recognizes outstanding lifework in photojournalism. Linked to the award is a major retrospective exhibition of Horst's work, "Visible War," which is currently in Frankfurt.

Horst Faas pours himself a German beer in his hospital room in Bavaria.

The German Society of Photography (DGPh: Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Photographie), Germany's most influential cultural organization for photography, will bestow its prestigious Dr. Erich Salomon Award on Horst Faas this year, on October 1. This award recognizes an individual's outstanding lifetime achievements in photojournalism and is Germany's most important photography award. The DGPh honors Faas' extraordinary career as a photo reporter and picture editor as well as his charitable projects, such as the IMMF workshops he organizes and finances for young Vietnamese photographers. The Dr. Erich Salomon Award, named for the great photographer credited with introducing candid 35mm photography to photojournalism, before dying at Auschwitz, is linked to a comprehensive exhibit of Horst Faas' lifework that opened on June 3 in Frankfurt. The exhibit will eventually move on to Hannover, Nuernberg, Koenigswinter, Hanoi and New York.

"Visible War" celebrates in about 400 exhibits not only the lifework of Horst Faas, but also tells the multi-faceted history of modern photojournalism. Besides numerous original photographs the exhibit includes documents, letters, newspapers and objects. Among the highlights are three working M picture radio transmitters.

The curators of "Visible War," Michael Ebert and Julia Wallstab, report on the remarkable man and exciting history behind the exhibit.

The voyage into the life of a man who is closely linked to one of the most interesting chapters of photojournalism starts at the European headquarters of The Associated Press, at 12 Norwich Street, close to Fleet Street, the traditional London center of the British newspaper and publishing industries. The office of Horst Faas is on the second floor, looking out at the 'picture desk' where the steady flow of photos is managed. Thousands of images flicker day and night across the computer screens. Narrow corridors, many rooms without windows, the floor dominated by the humming of servers - it is the traffic center of the world's largest news agency. Unlike their colleagues in other parts of the world, the London AP photo editors do their jobs in a relaxed and cheerful manner - typically English.

This has been the workplace of Horst Faas for almost 30 years and when he retired from his job last year, the usually profit-minded AP left him his office - at least for the time being. Homage to a legend. The small office is crowded with stacks of boxes, folders, books. There is not much room for visitors. On the walls are pictures, pictures, pictures, but not only photographs; there are also prints by Paul Weber, Miró and a colorful oil painting by the American artist Jankel Adler. Southeast Asian bronze sculptures on the window sill confirm Faas' ingrained love of the art of Asia, the continent where he spent many years of his life. I quietly ponder if a mathematician would be able to calculate when the stacks on the desks and floor would reach the low ceiling. I can't help but compare this to the world of the "Lou Grant" television programs.

On a cold, wet Saturday in February we dug into this London treasure trove and were quickly drawn into it. In our imagination we saw the Mekong Delta, Route 1, Saigon, Hué, Nha Trang, the 17th Parallel and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Scenes like in "Apocalypse Now." Letters, telex messages, an abundance of newspaper clippings and documents passed through our hands. Old press cards, expense accounts, notebooks and again and again photographs, some with such horrible content that one wants to look away. The horror, fixed onto yellowed baryt prints, obviously not made for a museum. We located negatives, forgotten for 40 years, now waiting to be printed and exhibited.

We soon realized that we had found something unique. It is a mosaic showing in all its complexity not only the biography of this famous photo reporter, but, more so, a deep insight into the history of photojournalism.

To do justice to the many exhibition items and to avoid the impression of overcrowding, we decided on an intentionally simple and straightforward design. Printed matter, maps and photographs are placed between two plastic plexi sheets. Thus the historical authenticity of the objects is evident. The name of the exhibition, "Visible War," is reflected in the transparent material. The often bad condition of the vintage prints is intentionally shown to document the handling of the photographs within the journalistic context. Photos are augmented by texts and documents. Some frames are suspended to show inscriptions, stamps, etc. on the back. Text boards with commentaries explain the methodology of war reporting. Some objects, such as historic cameras and photo transmitters, explain the technical environment. Captivating audiotapes draw visitors back into the past.

Entering the main hall, the "Requiem Wall" is noted first. This "Requiem" exhibition consists of about 70 DIN A3-size prints. They are mounted on light 1.5cm Kappala material. The images were exhibited by Faas to interest publishers in the "Requiem" book project. After this exhibit proved successful, a large, comprehensive exhibition was created. "Requiem" shows images of photographers who lost their lives covering the wars in Indochina and Vietnam, including Larry Burrows, Robert Capa and Henri Huet. Sixty-six of these images hang in 11 rows of six prints each across the full width of the wall. Thus they create a montage which documents Horst Faas' commitment for his fallen colleagues while simultaneously providing an overview of war photography in Vietnam. Below the photos, partially covered, are the names of the dead photographers. Next to them are the title of the exhibition and an accompanying text.

In the center of the room stands our reconstruction of the AP photo desk in Saigon. On it tools and materials, then part of photojournalism, are displayed: developed and undeveloped films, contact sheets, cameras, an historical typewriter, telephone, photographs, newspapers, etc.

Regular speedy transmission of photographs from Vietnam across the world by electronic means was a novelty in war reporting. From the early '60s until the end of the war (in 1975) countless newsphotos were transmitted by the phototransmitters of AP and UPI. Two historical machines - a transmitter and a receiver - demonstrate to visitors a technique which is now a chapter of communications history. In the electronic transmission, the greyscale tone values of photo dots were translated into sound and then transmitted on radio waves or the normal telephone network. The sound, comparable to the sound of modems or fax machines, was often received with tape recorders to facilitate a retransmission. We have made it possible to "listen" to photos from Vietnam during the exhibition. A tape recorder stands on a table. The unit is an authentic reporter's tool, the Nagra from 1965, a type frequently used in Vietnam. Visitors can listen to fascinating interviews and sound documents. A highlight is a tape which was recorded by AP reporter John Wheeler immediately after Horst Faas was seriously wounded in December 1967.

"Visible War" is a view from an unusual angle into a period of time which occupies a special place in the history of the media. Exhibition curators seldom have the luck of finding such rich and complete sources and historical items as those of Horst Faas. First of all we have to thank the mother of Horst Faas. Unknown to him, she collected over five decades' worth of countless clippings, letters and photographs which he had sent her. When she died in 2004, at age 93, five cases with these mementoes were found in the loft of his parents' home in Munich. Thus our research into a reporter's world, in which usually nothing is older than the photograph from yesterday, became a fascinating exploration into the past, which will take much more time to complete.

© Michael Ebert and Julie Wallstab

Michael Ebert was born in 1959. He began his career as a photographer. One of his first jobs was as a photo stringer for The AP. After that he worked as a photo reporter for different agencies, magazines and newspapers. From 1990-1996 he headed the photo department of "Telekom." Now he is working as a freelance photographer, publisher and curator. He is a member of the board of the DGPh (German Society of Photography).

Julia Wallstab was born in 1982. After finishing high school, she lived and worked in New York and Lima, Peru. She has worked for different photographers and now studies Communication Design at the University of Essen in Germany.