Hugh Van Es:
R.I. in f*****g P.
June 2009

by Kees Metselaar and Vaudine England

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The annals of photojournalism are replete with legendary characters. These are Hemingway-type icons who are the subjects of storytelling wherever journalists gather, in late-night hours, in countless bars from Bangkok to Bombay. Hugh van Es was one of these larger than life characters. His photograph of evacuees climbing into an Air America helicopter atop a Saigon building as the city was falling to North Vietnamese forces in 1975 put a stamp of finality on that conflict. A rangy Dutchman, with a wry and laconic wit, he was known for his profuse use of the words "fucking" and "fuckers" to describe almost anything he beheld. He died last month in his sleep from a cerebral hemorrhage in his home in Hong Kong. The following week, a wake was held at his favorite watering hole, the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC), where he had a permanent stool from which he held court every day at the bar. Friends and colleagues flew in from all over the world to honor their friend. Vaudine England and Kees Metselaar were among them, and report on the wake.]

When we heard that our best friend, Hugh van Es, had gone to hospital after suffering a huge cerebral hemorrhage, we were in Amsterdam – where Hugh had first worked as a news photographer back in 1959. We promptly went to one of his favorite 'brown cafés' to think through what it all meant.

We were not alone.

© Photograph by Bob Carroll
Photojournalist Hubert van Es in Hong Kong, August 2008.
Within hours of the bad news, a virtual community sprang up around the world. An e-mail list was begun by Hugh's much loved wife, Annie, and then managed by two close friends, Dutchman Gijs Kijlstra and cameraman Derek Williams. It ballooned from the initial 16 names to 100 and eventually to more than 300 names.

All of us, as Hugh lay oblivious in a coma at Hong Kong's Queen Mary Hospital, couldn't stop talking about the guy. 

We wondered when to dash back, if there was the chance of one last conversation with him. We competed with anecdotes. We felt new freedom in using the English swear words Hugh had made his own – though few knew that his Dutch was entirely respectable. 

Those of the Vietnam era mourned the imminent loss of yet another of their number. Many more of us just couldn't imagine being at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club without Hugh parked at the bar. 

For us, Hugh and Annie were our Hong Kong family and the death of Hugh was less about photography and much more about losing the guy we could wholly rely on. He always listened, he cracked sardonic jokes, he was never pompous or pretentious, he had no time for bullshit.

© Hugh van Es / Corbis
As Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese, evacuees clamber to the top of an apartment building to board a helicopter, April 30, 1975.
Countless were the times that young things in journalism would approach Hugh's place at the bar with awe, bowled over by seeing the guy who took the famous photo of Saigon 1975. Time and again, Hugh would accept the adulation with a grunt and then turn the conversation around – what was this young man or woman doing, what were their plans, where would they be going for the next story? 

He actually had time for the next generation and was less interested in forever hashing over the achievements of those gone before, himself included. Underneath that curmudgeonly exterior, here was a guy who deeply loved his wife, who supported women as much as men in the business, and whose respect was actually worth earning. 

He was also the man who held a huge community together. This village includes the FCC in Hong Kong, its relative in Bangkok and hacks across Asia. It ranges from tracking how Horst Faas is feeling, to knowing when Edie Lederer would next be coming to town, to being the one who would take care to see that Clare Hollingworth, 97 years old and still in Hong Kong's FCC every day, could get home safely despite a recent health scare.

That's why, when Hugh died, people flew in from around the world to mark his passing – we were under orders to party.

Held upstairs at the FCC on Friday, May 22, 2009, Hugh's wake offered standing room only. The queue to sign the condolence book never went away, the alcohol flowed, the food – including favored Dutch snacks – kept coming. As did the talk.

Derek Williams, the cameraman still working for Asiaworks in Bangkok, had been with Hugh during all those years in Vietnam and had the most hilarious stories of Hugh's working life:

"It was 1979 and Vietnam had invaded Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands of Khmer refugees streamed into Thailand, creating a major humanitarian crisis," recalled Derek.

© Bob Davis
Friends and family of photojournalist Hugh van Es, including Mark Erder, Robin Moyer and Hugh's beloved wife, Annie, share laughs and reminiscences at his lively wake at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong, May 22, 2009.
"President Jimmy Carter sent his wife, Rosalynn, as a humanitarian ambassador to raise awareness of the tragedy. She went to visit the crowded refugee camp in Sa Kaew near the Thai/Cambodian border. Naturally, a planeload of the White House press corps accompanied her. It was the rainy season and the camp was a sea of mud ... Thai officials had marked out Mrs. Carter's path in white lime through the small portion of the camp she was to observe.

"Van Es looked at the heaving mass of photographers and TV crews awaiting her arrival at the camp entrance and rightly decided to avoid that particular part of the photo-op. He walked ahead and found a suitably pitiful mother and child along the first lady's route. He spotted a good angle and staked out his camera position.

"As the V.I.P. party approached he realized to his dismay that Mrs. Carter was about to walk right past his chosen frame.

"Van Es yells out, 'How about diss baby, Mrs. Carter?'

"The first lady replied, 'Don't you have enough pictures of babies already?'

"Van Es: 'Not in diss fucking gang-bang!'

"Visibly taken aback, she picked up the child. Van Es got his shot."

The wake crowd convulsed with laughter and ordered up more drinks. "Everyone had a ball – just the way Hugh wanted it," said Annie.

There were stories of marathon Calvados sessions in Sutherland House, of paying corkage on wife Annie in Bangkok girlie bars, of Hugh's oft-hidden decency and generosity. "I'm holding up better than I thought," said Annie, after cracking up laughing at the fine dry wit of Gijs Kijlstra. 

His winning speech featured explanations of the role of Jenever (Dutch gin) in hair care, offering a possible explanation for Annie's raven locks, and a helpful description of how the FCC matched a Dutch brown bar in becoming the front room to Hugh's life.

© Hugh van Es / AP
Of all his Vietnam War photographs, this one taken during the battle for Hamburger Hill was Hugh van Es' favorite.
Tributes poured in from all over. After David Garcia came Saul Lockhart, best man at Hugh and Annie's wedding, who came from Australia with wife Alison. Wally Nahr spoke on behalf of his son, Dominic, reminding us all of the importance of keeping your copyright – a reference to the fact that Hugh's famous picture is actually owned by Corbis, not by him.

Jim Okuley came from Saigon – he's the brother of Bert, who was Hugh's boss when he took the famous Saigon evacuation picture. Photographers there included Mike Yamashita from New York; Derek Williams, Peter Charlesworth from Bangkok; Basil Pao, just back in Hong Kong, and Robin Moyer too. Bob Davis told us to look at Hugh's pictures and see that photojournalism lives. Friends had flown in from Canada, France, Holland, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere.

The music was provided by Allen Youngblood and friends, for free – "out of respect," they said, for the man who had most supported their musicianship. Tim Huxley, shipping tycoon, babe magnet and racing car team manager, will miss the man he hired to shoot the Macau Grand Prix every year.  

In fitting tribute to a life of fluid intake, Hugh's wake was honored by the attendance of former bar staff of the FCC. One of them, Irene Mak, remembered fondly how Hugh's grip on Cantonese may not have been extensive but was effective, when he was missing Annie: "He would say, 'where's my tai-tai?'"

It was weird to think Hugh wasn't there to see it all. If he'd been watching he probably would have said, "fuck that."

© Kees Metselaar and Vaudine England

Kees Metselaar is a Dutch photographer based in Hong Kong, with journalist Vaudine England.

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