The Digital Journalist
The Vietnamization of Philip Jones Griffiths

by Peter Howe

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.

Philip on Maggie
I've often said no pharmacist should really stay a pharmacist because counting pills teaches you the true nature of boredom, so every pharmacist should become something else - except for one: Margaret Thatcher. She should have stayed a pharmacist. For those people who don't know who Margaret Thatcher was, because hopefully she's sunk into obscurity, she was the prime minister that turned the clock back on the human race for a generation.

The fact that he grew up in a relatively isolated environment was a major factor in his choice of career. The insularity of his village fostered a curiosity about the world outside, and from a young age he was an eager devourer of Picture Post, the British equivalent of LIFE. This publication, along with a collection of bric-a-brac belonging to an aunt who had made an overland trip from South Africa, a short-wave radio, plus a lifelong fear of boredom made him yearn to visit those places that he had only read or heard about. It seemed to him that his Box Brownie was the ticket out. It also solved another problem that was vexing the youth - getting his laundry done. He had read that Magnum did Robert Capa's laundry, and since up to that point his mother had always done Philip's, joining this prestigious agency seemed a perfect answer to the problem. Although roving the world armed with a camera and clean underwear may have been his career of choice, his parents had other plans for the young Jones Griffiths. They felt that a life in pharmacy would be equally rewarding and more secure, and so, like so many of us at that age, he took the line of least resistance and headed to Liverpool to study the profession, figuring that at least he was out of the village.

Know your enemy
After 1968 and the Tet Offensive, the press became, if not exactly the enemy, then certainly blamed for undermining the war effort. But the myth that the press lost the war is alive even today, and yet it's totally and utterly untrue. I would say 97 percent of the journalists covering Vietnam were all in favor of the war. Slightly less than three percent were for the war, but were critical of the way it was being fought, and then there were a handful of others, including myself, who were against the war in principal. People have asked me, "Did that mean you had to lie your way through?" I never lied, and I think one of the great strengths of Americans in general, both the ones I met in Vietnam and the ones I've met here, is that they're prepared to listen to opposing views. I once got an assignment from LIFE to photograph the head of the 101st Cavalry, the Screaming Eagles as they're called, a particularly vicious bunch who did a lot of terrible things in the area where they operated. He was the general in charge, and over dinner he would ask, "Well, Phil, what do you think? Are we going to win this one?" And I said, "No, you're going to lose it, and this is why." You could talk and they would listen to you. I've a horrible feeling that in Northern Ireland, if I'd have said something like that to a British officer, he would have had me out on the next plane.

He not only qualified as a pharmacist, he stayed one for three years, much of which time was spent working the night shift at Boots the Chemist in Piccadilly Circus in London. In this establishment he prepared curious concoctions for terminally ill cancer patients and entertained many of London's ladies of the night, streetwalkers who would come into the 24-hour store to take the weight off their high heels. It was what he did during the day that was becoming increasingly important in his life: taking pictures for publication. In association with the well-established photo library, Pictorial Press, he was making enough of a living by 1961 to quit the black arts of pharmacy for the black-and-white arts of photography. At this stage of his life, however, it was more often the color version that was required. The Sunday color supplements to both the London Sunday Times and the London Observer had just started out, and because there was intense competition between the two publications there was plenty of work for any photographer capable of correctly exposing Kodachrome. Although he was grateful for the assignments, he was never comfortable with color for the kind of work that he was interested in doing. In a recent interview he explained why: "Color fights you the whole time. Not in the studio, not if you're shooting a movie, a fiction film. Then of course there's no problem. But when you're doing reality and you're doing dying, starving people, with all these red and blue buckets from the U.N. in the picture, it looks like Coney Island. Color destroys so much."

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.

Know your enemy/Part 2
After Vietnam Inc. was published in 1971, I happened to be in Australia, and I got an assignment from Life to go back to cover the big offensive that took place in '72. I went to Hong Kong to pick up a visa, but when I got my passport back the visa they'd given me originally had been crossed out with printers' ink. I knew I couldn't get back in [to Vietnam], so I immediately telexed Life and said, "Can you work on it and get me in?" They came back and said, "Oh, you won't believe this, but we've just had a call, and President Thieu himself has said, 'There are many people I don't want to see back in my country, and I can assure you that Mr. Griffiths' name is at the top of the list.'" I replied, "Get it in writing! Then I can frame it and hang it on my wall!"

Although the first American "advisors" went to Vietnam in 1954, by the time that Philip landed in the country it was still relatively early in the major American military involvement in that country. The first official contingent of American combat troops arrived shortly after Lyndon Johnson's landslide election victory in November 1964. The advantages of being there early were that it was still relatively easy to get around South Vietnam, and the military had not yet put in place the barriers against the press that their resentment and distrust caused them to erect when the war spiraled out of control. "Back in 1966 there was no animosity towards the press," Philip explained, "it was very easy. You got your paperwork in order; you were given a card, which explained that you could get on and off helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. You could move around. You were treated seriously. You had the rank of major. As somebody said, 'the only people they can bump you off for are Westmoreland or the wounded.'" In fact the most difficult part of any journey was often getting out of Saigon. The photographer had to first go to the Joint United States Public Affairs Office, or JUSPAO as it was known. There you would be interrogated about the purpose of your trip, and then, if you cleared that hurdle, you had to be at the airport by five in the morning. The only problem with that was the curfew wasn't lifted until five and so it was impossible to be on time and avoid getting a black mark. Once on board, however, the country was literally at your feet; you could go anywhere. Like the pharmacist he was trained to be, Philip methodically analyzed the situation by breaking it down into its component parts, and traveled to every province in South Vietnam to see the situation for himself. Two things became immediately apparent: first of all that there was a huge cultural divide between the Americans and the Vietnamese that would define the progress of the war. Philip immediately recognized the characteristics of his own countrymen in the attitudes of the Vietnamese: "wise, introspective, always looking, always checking out - I thought, wow, this is Wales all over again. This is my village; this is how I grew up."

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
Executive Editor