The Digital Journalist

Against All Odds in Hanoi

Last Reflections on Potential Doom, Then Ultimate Victory of the IMMF 2005 Photo Workshop

by Jim Caccavo

Finding myself in a Saigon restaurant in late April, sitting across from Horst Faas, a question surfaced that had been lingering in my mind since the election of the new Catholic Pope. With Pope Benedict having been a young boy in Germany during WWII, it was revealed that the new Pontiff had been required to serve in the Hitler Youth.

Already into our third bottle of wine on that warm, humid Indochine evening, it only seemed natural - if not somewhat bold – that I ask Horst if he, by any chance, had known the Pope when he (Horst) was in the Hitler Youth. Suddenly there was silence. Horst looked at me for a moment and then broke into that well-known mischievous smile, "No I didn't," he replied without missing a beat, "we were not in the same unit. You know it was mandatory in those days; there was no choice in the matter, but we enjoyed it because we got to go camping on the weekends instead of going to school," he laughed as the laughter rolled down and back up the long table.

We were all from different parts of the world, but on this 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam American War, we veteran journalists were in the hometown of our deepest and most emotional memories. And as it was during those war years Horst Faas was – and still is – the dean and mentor of many Vietnam correspondents.

Jim Caccavo, center, looks over his group's work as Dinh Thi Thanh Binh, Deputy Director of Vietnam News Agency's Training Center, far right, looks on.

Photograph by Hoai Thanh
Without being sacrilegious, what the Pope is to the world of Catholicism, Horst Faas is to the world of photojournalism.

Although Tim Page founded the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation (IMMF) in 1991 as a living memorial to our fallen friends and colleagues from both sides of the war, it was Faas who has been the physical and spiritual leadership of the highly prestigious IMMF workshops that have drawn the most talented photojournalists from the countries of Southeast Asia. And in turn, the IMMF workshop has drawn some of the most prestigious names in photojournalism to teach. But on the eve of this coming workshop, problems were already discouraging the program, with Jim Nachtwey and Gary Knight having canceled their commitment.

As I had been a trustee with the IMMF since its conception, Tim had asked me to teach, but the opportunity never presented itself. Now it was a matter of necessity as he asked if I could make time in my Hanoi schedule to teach. But something else was coming that was to be even more disruptive and upsetting to the IMMF Workshop.

On the morning of May 4, the eve of the workshop, Horst, suffering from excruciating back pain, was rushed to the SOS Medical Clinic for foreigners in Hanoi. The doctor then thought it was an enlarged heart with the immediate threat of cardiac arrest. George Esper, one of Faas' oldest friends and earliest colleagues, was first to his bedside, soon followed by a pilgrimage of all of us in pairs. Not since the war had I seen that fatal, drained expression on Tim Page's face as he came out of Horst's room. This can't be happening. Not now. "We need to get Horst out now, or we will be in a sea of Doom," he reflected with the urgency and stress of the moment.

Flashback: Long Binh, 1969, and Tim Page was in the U.S. Army's 93rd Evac hospital with severe head injuries from his fourth and most serious wound, as friends convoyed up from Saigon for what many thought would be a final farewell to Dispatches' "scrambler to the front." Among the pilgrims was the endurable Larry Burrows of Life magazine, who stood over a dazed and bandaged Page as Tim tried through confusion and gauze to apologize for some long-ago Page acronym he had made to Burrows about Larry's concern for the suffering of Vietnam's children. Behind his thick glasses, the tall, lanky Burrows quietly wept as he assured the broken Tim that everything would be all right. And in time, his reassurance would come true. Tim would survive and walk again. Two years later, Larry would die (with three other colleagues) in a helicopter shot down over Laos.

Fast forward to Hanoi, 2005: All hell was breaking loose between the SOS emergency room and the De Syloia Hotel. The 2005 IMMF Workshop was going into auto-rotate and was losing altitude fast. It had taken too many hits and the loss of Faas leading the program was an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) right into the main rotor. Everything had become secondary priorities to Horst's condition. I now found myself in Horst's small room as he tried to move and complained of the pain. "Where is my wallet? Where are my glasses? My belt? My watch?" Just as in the war, everything went into automatic as I found myself looking for and organizing all requested items into a blue plastic bag which I then inserted into a larger manila envelope whereupon I wrote: "Horst Faas, Personal Items" … just as I had done so many times in a long-ago evac hospital. And I remembered another smaller manila envelope that read "ASSOCIATED PRESS, 106 Nguyen Hue St., Saigon. Please call 91344, 91345, 91346. PRESS PHOTOS." Faas had given it to me many years ago to send film in to the AP. That roar in my ears was an overload of memories rushing to a climax we were all fearing.

I came out of Horst's room to find a beehive of activity. George Esper was huddled over a laptop computer with AP Hanoi bureau's Margie Mason, trying to come up with insurance answers on getting Horst an air medical evacuation to Bangkok. The MRI machine in Hanoi was too small for Horst's girth. Tim and Peter Ritter of the IMMF were saying to medevac Horst out now and then sort out the expense later.

Meanwhile, Horst's luggage was being packed up at the hotel and Charlie Dharapak was checking with Canon at the VNA (Vietnam News Agency) conference hall as everything was moving ahead on the workshop, with all of us looking behind to get the latest on Horst's condition. Then the IMMF's Sheila Brown and Peter Ritter hit me with a more direct request in a Horst Faas manner: "Jim, you will fill in for Horst, won't you?" I hoped to have a final answer to them by the end of the day as I checked back with my schedule in Los Angeles where I was due to return within two days. I was totally unprepared with no samples or portfolio to show. Asking me to "take Horst Faas' place" was like asking a choirboy to fill in for the Pope. And on that note, a choirboy who can't even carry a tune.

That evening, Tim read to me his opening speech for the workshop. I assured him not to worry nor to change anything as it expressed beautifully the objectives and purpose of the IMMF. I could see the stress on Tim of having to fly solo without Horst. Together the two had created the prize-winning book and exhibit, "Requiem," which had many people speculating that the two men were like two peas in a pod. A more accurate analogy would be a pea and a steel ball bearing. Horst was precise and exact on how he wanted things done and this was as true with the IMMF workshops as it was with the AP during the war. His imprint alone would guide the program despite his absence.

With its main rotors in full thrust, the program would lift off and fly smoothly through the next eight days with a crew of tutors who were all throwing their best at the students, who in turn would throw it back at us ten times over. Over 30,000 images would come from the six teams consisting of six students each. I was able to jump on board at the last minute.

The first day opened in the Vietnamese News Agency Training Center with no problems. The students picked up their Canon cameras and lenses, and after the initial opening speeches and introductions of instructors, the students – all working photojournalists in Vietnam – were out the gate.

Team One was headed by Chihako Yatabe, Associated Press Senior Photo Editor for Asia, who showed AP's coverage of the Tsunami and emphasized the importance of not manipulating or faking images in Photoshop, calling it the kiss of death for a photojournalist.

Charlie Dharapak, AP's White House photographer, headed Team 2 and also was the computer technical wizard, and a veteran of previous workshops. Charlie showed a variety of his earlier news work and his coverage of the White House. He included a shot or two of his son and wife from whom the separation of this trip was his sacrifice for the IMMF.

Steve Northup, or "Stave" as his name tag stated, who headed Team 3 with a résumé that included UPI in the Vietnam American War, The Washington Post and later Time magazine, showed his book project on Laos. Of all the tutors, Steve was the most noticeable with his enthusiastic proclamations of "Give me five!" every time a student's work impressed him, which was quite often. I think he was getting blisters on his hand by the third day.

Gaby Sommer, a German photographer who walked with the grace and appearance of Lauren Bacall, tutored Team 4. After Gaby showed her work from European magazines, I realized I already knew her from her photos. Gaby worked with her students in a more quiet, intense style similar to my own. Mr. Doan Bao Chau, a freelance photographer who interpreted for both parties with the perception and speed of MASH's Radar O'Reilly, was a bit stumped when Gaby advised the women photographers to "pre-pee" before going out on a shoot. Eventually, it was clarified. I thought that was good advice for guys over 50 as well.

Tim Page headed Team 6, but despite his long experience with the workshop, he and some others not familiar with the PhotoMechanics software program had some difficulty editing on the small laptops. Tim showed multiple presentations of his work.

I was given Team Five, but all I had with me to show was my laundry: two pairs of socks, shorts and a polo shirt. I was not expecting to teach and had brought nothing with me short of my personal projects. Charlie came to the rescue when he was able to go online and bring up my Web site which had samples of advertising, corporate, and editorial work, including covers for Business Week, Forbes and Popular Science. Fortunately, I also had on the site a folder of Vietnam War images and current documentary projects. Like everything that had happened so far, I fell into place in the workshop, filling a gap that the students wanted to know more about.

The real star of the faculty was Nick Ut, who is a genuine celebrity in Vietnam. He was able to work with a team for a couple of days. I have worked with Nick before on presentations – including an IMMF presentation in Bangkok in 1994. It would be an understatement to say that it was a terrifying experience for Nick to have to speak English in front of an audience of Americans, but place him in front of a group of Vietnamese and Nick is relaxed in his own element. Nick showed his work including the famous photos of Pham Thi Kim Phuc that won him the Pulitzer. Nick explained to the students how after shooting the powerful image, he took Kim Phuc and her father to the hospital and argued with the medical staff to take her in immediately. It saved her life. I think most photographers would have taken the film and run for the deadline, instead of doing what Nick did.

It became very clear throughout the workshop that integrity and humanity were as critical as – if not more so – than F/stops.

Team One would have the benefit of a third tutor following Nick and Chikako's early departure from the workshop. Richard Vogel, AP's Hanoi photo editor and chief photographer, would jump into the seat despite his own demanding daily schedule.

The workshop was like a stack of cards with every tutor and staff person being critical to the success of the stack. Pull one person and it would have collapsed.

From Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, Tim brought his students, David Nielsen and Gemi Turnbull, to oversee the technical aspects of the workshop including the bay of computers and Canon printers. As the program progressed each day and the students kept bringing in more and more images, it was hard to keep up with them as Gemi and David would ask for more edits for prints. But, no matter how stressful it got, you always knew everything was OK when you heard Gemi's distinctive laugh roll across the floor and reverberate off the walls. Gemi is Australian for Robust Girl, Mate!

Madame Binh, who headed the VNA Training Center, became intrigued with the story of my friendship with a former North Vietnamese Army lieutenant whose diary I returned in 1996 after having it for 26 years. When she learned of the other diary I had that was featured in the Mel Gibson film, "We Were Soldiers," and my efforts to return it, she set her VNA team to work to locate the family of the long-ago-deceased soldier. For a while it appeared we might have a breaking news story coming out of the workshop, but it fell short when they learned that the soldier was not originally from the nearby village, but had migrated north from the south in 1954. Currently, a VNA reporter is searching in the south for the village and family. Perhaps on my next trip, the diary will be returned to the family of one of the over 300,000 soldiers still missing from their side of the war.

Horst would be medevaced out to Bangkok the night of the first day of the workshop. Reports would come back that his heart was not the problem, but that the focus was again on his back and spinal cord. We were informed that he was paralyzed from the chest down, but through the help of Denis Gray, AP Bureau Chief in Bangkok, everyone was being kept informed from Horst of the latest developments.

Early into the program, it was decided to create a prize in honor of Horst and call it the "Horst Faas Prize for Excellence" for which Horst would personally select his favorite. He would, in fact, select two.

On the last day, the exhibit started going up, with a reception and program in the evening. One of my students, Viet Tuan, won one of the Horst Faas awards. With the hard work and dedication of the students, it had been one of the most satisfying and intensive teaching experiences of my career.

The IMMF was in reality conceived in the misty mountains and valleys of Laos in February 1971 when a Vietnamese Army Huey helicopter carrying photographers Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto was struck by enemy ground fire, exploded and crashed.

The courage of these great photojournalists was surpassed only by the compassion expressed in their work and for the people around them. The word that comes often to describing Larry and Henri is "gentle." As Dirck Halstead and the late John Durniak wrote in ASMP's Infinity magazine, "An era in photojournalism had come to an end." All of us from those days can tell you where we were and what we were doing when we learned of the crash.

On that misty morning in Laos, the mountains and valleys reached into the sky and pulled them down to her bosom, embracing them for all eternity. Their mortal remains became part of the land they loved.

And in the eyes of our students at IMMF, I saw glimpses of Larry and Henri in the room. They were with us … and I think they were pleased.

© Jim Caccavo

James Caccavo was the Red Cross photographer in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1970. He started working for Newsweek in 1969. Since then, he has worked as staff and freelance for the Los Angeles Times, Time/Life and numerous other national publications. He also does corporate and editorial work out of his studio in Los Angeles. Jim has taught at Art Center College of Design, UCLA, Otis Art Institute, and is presently organizing a new photography program at West Los Angeles College. An IMMF trustee since 1991, he has worked and lived in Asia, Europe and the U.S. Caccavo's numerous awards and honors include a Bronze Humanitarian & Peace medallion from Geneva for his work with the Red Cross during the Vietnam War (1970); Pictures of the Year, NPPA (1965); and ASMP (1990).