The Digital Journalist
Remembering Eddie Adams
October 2004

by George Esper

I first met Eddie Adams in Vietnam in the 1960s and I marveled at his exceptional ability not only as a photographer but as a reporter and writer. What struck me was Eddie's ability to get to the big stories before anyone, even the military. I recall several amphibious landings the Marines made; I accompanied the Marines on some of those operations. As we landed, there was Eddie already on the beachhead awaiting us with a big smile. He drove the military crazy trying to figure out how he got there before them on these secret operations. To this day I don't know myself. Eddie had so many sources in Vietnam, from generals to the grunts in the field. He always shared his information with me both from them and from what he saw on the battlefield, and got me access to key operations and field commanders.

What I found remarkable is that Eddie captured on film the execution of the Viet Cong officer in 1/500th of a second at f11. That Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, as we all know, shocked the world and helped bring to an end the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Yet Eddie was never proud of it. The photo haunted him and he would not display it in his studio. He believed the photo had ruined the life of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who fired the shot. Feeling guilt, Eddie kept in touch with Loan, who fell upon hard times when he came to the United States, and attended his funeral when he later died.

I've been with Eddie at his workshop every year since he founded it in 1988 and insisted that part of it be a memorial to his photographer friends who died covering the Vietnam War. At every memorial service, Eddie was in tears when the names of his colleagues were read. That's the kind of guy he was: loyal, encouraging, a friend for life.

After retiring from the AP in 2000, I returned to my alma mater, West Virginia University, to teach journalism and invited Eddie to speak at the university a few years back. The execution photo was buried deep in his presentation. The students loved him because of his wit and flamboyant style that included his black wardrobe and wide-brimmed porkpie hat.

We have lost a legend, a teacher and friend. But his wonderful photos live on in books and archives, and in colleges and universities, including the halls of West Virginia University's School of Journalism.

© George Esper