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The Vietnamization of Philip Jones Griffiths
As he stepped onto Vietnamese soil for the first time in 1966, Philip Jones Griffiths was immediately reminded of his roots in a small village in rural Wales. For those of you who know that rugged, Celtic country this may come as a surprise, but it wasn't the jungles and rice paddies that seemed familiar. What attracted him to what has since become almost his second home was the people - the Vietnamese reminded him of the Welsh of his childhood. Both seemed to him to be a resourceful, observant people living in a network of small, tight communities where everyone knew everything that was going on. Vietnam's dissimilarities to the land of his upbringing also had an immediate appeal for him. He claims to have no hairs on the back of his legs, the result of spending the cold Welsh winters in short trousers too close to his home's inadequate coal fire. Vietnam's warm, moist tropical air seduced him into a love that remains to this day.
He also became aware that he was trapped on the "parachute journalism" treadmill. In 1964 alone he visited 40 countries, some of which he has only vague memories, such as being double-parked by a camel in Baalbek in Lebanon. He came to the realization that "you can be very thin, spread very wide, or you can try to narrow it down and go deep. Without even knowing it, without articulating it in my brain, I was looking for something that I could get deeply involved in. It didn't take a genius to work out where to go in 1966." Thus he stepped off the plane into the warm air to begin his deep involvement with Vietnam, and especially the Vietnamese, that has lasted for almost 40 years.
The second thing that struck him was the imperialistic attitude of the Americans towards the local inhabitants. "They weren't as bad as the French; they didn't call them savages or yellow or things like that, but they certainly looked down on the Vietnamese. I got so tired of watching Americans hugging a Vietnamese saying, 'Well, little Dai We here is a real go-getter. His mother and father were killed by the Cong, and now he kicks Cong ass. (Watch out Phil, he's a bit light-handed. Don't leave anything valuable lying around.)' And then I would talk to the Vietnamese and he would say, 'I studied philosophy at the Sorbonne for three years.'"
Philip also realized at this stage that there were two options open to him as a photographer. He could join The Associated Press and try to get his pictures on the front page of The New York Times every day, or he could stick with Magnum and produce something in more depth and hopefully with a longer-lasting effect. Fortunately for us and for history he chose the latter course, and committed himself to producing a book from what would be his many years' experience of the conflict.
It was a course that was fraught with difficulty, however. At the outset assignments were difficult to come by, and for about a year he lived off the sale of one of the two and a half airline tickets from London to Saigon that he had been able to get as advances from magazines in Britain before leaving for Asia. This was in the days when airline tickets were transferable and could almost be used like a check. However, as time went on he often had to choose between a bowl of Vietnamese soup and a roll of Tri-X, both of which cost about a dollar. Rescue came in an unlikely form - that of Jacqueline Kennedy, who was paying a visit to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia in the company of a British aristocrat named Lord Harlech, with whom she was rumored to be romantically linked. It was from the proceeds of exclusive pictures of the couple that Philip took that he was able to stay on in Saigon at a time when it looked as if he was running out of options. Never were the ill-gotten gains of a paparazzo put to such good use.
It is remarkable that three of the photographers who produced some of the defining work during the Vietnam conflict were British - Don McCullin, Larry Burrows and Philip himself. Of these three, Philip was the one who spent the most time in the country and probably understood its people best. Again as in Wales, everyone seemed to know who everyone was and what they were doing. The most amusing example of this was deep in the countryside away from Saigon where Philip came across a brothel that had been built to service the workers of a road-widening program. "They didn't know how wide the road was going to be so they built it out in the middle of a paddy field," Philip explained. "There was a sort of causeway running to the brothel, and I was photographing this kid; he was the pimp, looking rather sad. He was about 14 years old. One of the girls came out and said, 'I know you. You live Hotel Royale. You come my bar one day but you never go home with girl. Why not?' I said, 'No money. Magnum's not selling my pictures.' 'Oh, you bullshit. You come in now.' I thought that was so amazing, and this was a remote bit of the southern delta; it was miles from anywhere, but they know everything."
It was the depth of knowledge that he acquired of both the country and its people that distinguishes Vietnam Inc., the book that was the result of his work during these years. Not only is it the seminal photographic collection from the Vietnam War, it is also one of the finest photography books ever printed. Its extraordinary power, still as potent today in its recently reprinted form, derives from the fact that it is not a book of war photographs, but a portrait of a country suffering the ravages of war. Philip himself disputes the notion that he is a war photographer. "I'm not a war photographer; I just happened to photograph a war, and if anyone wants any proof as to the fact that I'm not a war photographer - guess what, I've been back to Vietnam 26 times since the war ended. War photographers don't go back to countries once the war's over; they go on to another war." In fact he finds the country that he so clearly loves more difficult to fathom in times of peace than war. For the first few years after the fall of Saigon in 1975 it seemed to him that they were constructing a better society, and one of which they could be proud, but as the result of the trade embargo against them and the collapse of their patron, the Soviet Union, they were forced to throw in their lot with the World Trade Organization. One of the results of this is that today in Vietnam, the second biggest rice exporter in the world, a third of the population are malnourished, and children are dying of beriberi. The country also had to endure a wave of mostly American-based entrepreneurialism, one result of which was an official revision of the history of the war. The word from the Politburo was that the American people weren't the enemy; the real enemies were the aggressors in Washington who made the American people do terrible things.
Philip's new book, Vietnam at Peace, springs from his need to understand what he experienced during those 26 postwar visits. He finds a dichotomy forming between a people trying to embrace consumerism and at the same time come to terms with their recent history. He is aware of a revival of interest in the war by a generation of Vietnamese too young to have experienced it for themselves, an interest aided by the Internet. "The Vietnamese now are beginning to understand what their country went through," he observes, "and for the first time in the last three or four years you see teenagers, people in their early twenties, at the museums making notes. Now in the coffee houses of Hanoi they're discussing the war. I'm never alone in Hanoi; they all want to talk to me, they want to ask me questions. I'm constantly being approached with explanations as to what happened in the war - 'Hey you were there, tell us, is this true, or is that true?'"
Juxtaposed to this awareness was a recent survey conducted by a Vietnamese magazine on young adults, the result of which was that the majority of young people interviewed placed Ho Chi Minh second to Bill Gates as the most famous person in the world. The police closed the magazine down shortly after this revelation. In Ho Chi Minh City, which many people still call Saigon, the old earthen floor shops have been replaced with stores that would not look out of place on Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive, and which cater to the expensive tastes of the tourists. That they exist at all is the result of the experiences of the sons and daughters of Politburo members. Sent to be educated in America, France or Australia they returned realizing that there was no reason that their country shouldn't have shopping areas similar to the ones they had seen in the lands they had visited. However, as Philip points out, around 80 percent of the population still lives in the countryside where the traditional ways continue to exist to a certain extent. "They are still doing what they have always done. They bury their ancestors in the rice fields so their spirit will pass into the rice so that when the family eats the rice they eat the spirit and the spirit lives forever." But even this is changing. After the war there was a population explosion which meant that there is a surplus of young people above the needs of rice farming, and this is being absorbed by the factories making the Nike shoes that we buy in the United States for $150, but for which the people who make them receive only a dollar a day.
When you talk to Philip his affection for and admiration of the Vietnamese people is palpable. He loves their intelligence and ingenuity. "Give them a pile of buffalo dung and two chopsticks and they'll make a short-wave radio. They can do anything. I remember a Russian telling me during the war, 'We deliver the SAM missiles with technicians who are supposed to show them how they work, but they tell us to get them back on the ship. And you know what, those missiles are only supposed to go up to 35,000 feet, and they've made them go up to 40,000, so they're knocking down the B52s with them. We could never do that in Russia; I don't know how the hell they did it, but they do it' and that's the Vietnamese."
For all the changes that have happened, for all of the compromises that have been made, and for all of the challenges that have still to be overcome, Philip retains a fundamental belief in the strength and endurance of the Vietnamese people. "The Vietnamese - well, they've surprised me all my life, and I'm hoping they're going to surprise me again." If they do the chances are that he will record their efforts, for like them he is a survivor - of combat, of cancer, and, he will claim, of being a member of Magnum for 40 years. For any young photojournalist, not only his work but also his life should be an inspiration. As he says, "I have enjoyed every minute of my career; I would have done nothing else. I can think of no better way of spending one's three score years and ten than being a photographer."
© Peter Howe
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