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Eddie Adams: Vietnam Hardcover – October 1, 2008
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Even though he had been a combat photographer in the U.S. Marines in Korea, the war pictures he took later in life involved him never knowing if he'd come back from his patrol missions with the troops. In one typical long-hand journal entry he wrote, "Went about 5 miles through the jungle today and what a bitch. Never done this with the marines in Korea--didn't make many pix--just worried more about survival."
Many of his pictures were taken while lying flat in the grass next to terrified or dead or dying people trying to take photographs while staying out of the cross hairs of Vietcong snipers. Several of his fellow Vietnam combat photographers were killed in action.
"One of the first things I learned is that the best way for me to cover this war is to stick with the lead platoon when I go on a mission. If anyone is going to get hit--it's them." Hemingway would have loved Adams and his method of reporting on wars "up close and personal."
While half the photos in my own book were in beautiful color images, none of Eddie's war pictures were in color. "I think all war should be shot in black-and-white. It's more primitive. Color tends to make things look too nice. It makes the jungle in Vietnam look lush--which it was. But it wasn't nice."
Alyssa Adams, the book's author and Eddie's wife explains why this book and its accompanying photo exhibition have only come out after his death. "Eddie Adams would never have let this book happen if he were alive. He hated being known for the photo on the cover of this book. The image disturbed him and he continually wrestled with the responsibility it brought. Even more, he disliked being defined by one image when he was capable of much more."
The picture on the book's cover is a Pulitzer Prize Winning photo of "South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig. Gen Nguyen Neoc Loan executing a Vietcong Officer with a single pistol shot in the head...the Vietcong officer grimaces at the impact of the fatal bullet." Adams wished he'd never taken that particular photo. It haunted him. He had taken a few photos to document what he figured would be another routine "threaten to get the subject to talk" and he took one picture of the gun pointed at the victim's head to go with the ones he had of the military police escorting the prisoner to their commanding officer still in the midst of an ongoing street battle. When the gun fired, Adams was horrified. The combat hardened photographer could not take the next pictures happening in front of him, which involved the victim falling as his head was spouting a three or four foot fountain of blood. He recovered enough to take a few more frames of the corpse lying on the street.
He and the NBC crew with him then returned to their respective news bureaus. The motion picture footage of the event was then shipped out of the country for development and later transmission from Tokyo or Hong Kong. Adams turned his film over to the AP lab techs and told the staffers that he thought he "got a picture of somebody shooting somebody." Then Adams went to lunch.
He never really liked those photos because they really weren't very good technically and they didn't tell the whole story. The General's aide had been murdered that morning and his wife and children knifed to death. The Vietcong were going about a systematic terror campaign to kill government workers and their entire families. Adam's says that anyone in the General's position might have done the same thing in those circumstances. "People have no idea of what war is like, and what happens." Adams hated the fact that his picture had destroyed so many lives. "...I don't like ruining people's lives with my pictures."
Readers of this review will have to read the book to better understand the entire context of that horrifying picture series. "The picture, however, offered a greater, mighty truth: it captured war's horror, not just the horror of Vietnam, but of all wars."
The opening double-page spread of the book shows kids on bicycles and motor shooters pausing to stare at the body of dead Vietcong soldier not much older than they are, lying at the side of the road. The book shows at least one other execution and the book is littered with the dead and wounded. Prisoners are being questioned with knives and fists. As the reader/viewer looks at the photos, death and fear is evident everywhere. Many of the people and soldiers shown in the book were probably killed before the war ended.
Adams' book deserved the top book award over mine. Most of my pictures, the stories behind them, and my memories are all pleasant if not happy memories. And I'm glad I flunked the physical to be a Navy Photographer during the Vietnam Era. If I'd survived the battlefield I would never have been the same. Eddie Adams was one of the photographers beaten by an angry anti-American mob. Surviving the battlefield was hard enough without worrying about that kind of appreciation.
Eddie Adams' memories of his photographs and the stories behind those included in this volume were probably anything but sweet dreams. His recollections of his war photography were more likely the stuff of nightmares and night terrors? How many days during his combat missions, with the sniper bullets slicing through the air around him, must he have been shaking so much from fear that it would have been difficult to even take a picture? As he so simply stated, "Making pictures in Vietnam is easy...things are happening all around and you just have to press a button and not get killed."
Whether you are a history buff, have an interest in photojournalism, or are just a casual book reader there is something for everyone within its pages.
My wife's family is eternally grateful for what Eddie Adams has accomplished through his photographs and thank you Alyssa for keeping his memory alive.