The Digital Journalist
Remembering Eddie Adams
October 2004

by Pete Hamill

I met Eddie Adams at the Saigon bureau of the Associated Press before Christmas of 1965. I was arranging to send back dispatches, in those years before computers, and asked him if he had any advice for me about covering the war.

"Yeah," he said. "Find some grizzled old non-com who was in Korea. Ask him to keep you alive."

Then he said, "Learn these two words. 'Bao chi.' That's Vietnamese for 'press.' If you walk into some guy with a gun, put your hands in the air, and shout 'bao chi, bao chi!'" He laughed. "Maybe he won't shoot you."

At the time, Eddie Adams was a lean, stringy guy dressed in some patchwork of army and civilian clothes, with pockets for film and lenses, and I didn't see much of him in Saigon. Most of the time, he was off at the war, in places where I was not present. Photographers did not have the luxury of the reporters who covered U.S. press conferences - the "Five O'Clock Follies" - at the Rex Hotel. They could not piece together accounts of combat from wounded young men in hospital beds. They had to go to where the killing was. They were a challenge to all of us.

"To tell the truth," Eddie told me years later, "I didn't get scared too often. The adrenalin rush was so strong, I didn't get scared until it was over. The next night, the next month." He laughed. "Or just last week."

Most of the time, he didn't talk about Vietnam, and never mentioned the 1968 photograph that earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. It showed the South Vietnamese police chief, Lt. Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, shooting a Viet Cong suspect in the head on the second day of the Tet Offensive in February. The photograph made front pages all over the world but you could never find a print of it on the walls of Eddie's various studios. He even shrugged off the prize.

"All that a Pulitzer really does," he once told my wife, Fukiko, "is give the obit writers something to put between the commas after your name."

Now he is dead, and the Pulitzer was between all the commas. Again, we saw The Photograph. Now it was a graphic reminder that we have yet to see a defining image from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is not yet an Eddie Adams image. There is not yet anything to compare to Nick Ut's heart-tearing photograph of that little Vietnamese girl running naked on a nameless road, seared by napalm, screaming in Vietnamese, "Too hot! Too hot!" One night a few years ago I met Nick Ut at Eddie's studio, along with the grown-up girl whose picture he took that day and whose life he saved. All three were joined that night, members of the same tiny guild.

Today's photographers are just as brave and skilled as those who went to 'Nam, but they work in a prison of image control. The Pentagon and its political bosses want to present a war without blood, made only of burning vehicles and wrecked buildings. The image mongers learned from Vietnam that great photographers always cut the legs off rhetoric.

Eddie Adams hated the slovenly rhetoric of war. But like all the survivors (about 80 photographers did not survive), he learned lessons from Vietnam too. Above all, war taught him to embrace life. He loved women (most of all, his wife, Alyssa), and his children. He loved parties and food and dancing and laughter. He loved soldiers. He loved reporters and photographers, the old unruly fraternity that had gone to 'Nam.

He had his feuds; he could be prickly in defense of his work, but he was insistently generous to the young. In 1988, he created the annual workshop that bears his name, where 100 selected young photographers could meet the greatest practitioners of the craft, and learn some of that craft and much of its lore. Some of them came away with information about lenses and shutter speeds. All came away with lessons about life.

He called the workshop "Barnstorm" and placed it on his farm in Jeffersonville, N.Y., on the peaceful road to the Catskills. As part of each year's workshop, there was a memorial service around a stone marker, where the young could learn the names of Larry Burrows and Henry Huet and Kent Potter and Kyochi Sawada and all the others who went to 'Nam and never came back. At these services, Eddie Adams always looked withdrawn, a prisoner of memory.

And yet Eddie never seemed to be a haunted man. When the services ended, he returned from wherever he had gone for its duration. "Okay," he'd say, "let's eat." If you ran into him in the street in the various parts of downtown Manhattan where he lived and worked, he always smiled and so did you. Sometimes, we'd put up our hands and whisper, "bao chi." And laugh, and perhaps hear the distant rumble of artillery.

© Pete Hamill