How exactly is it ok to photograph and publish the shooting of any human being yet it isn't ok to even take a photograph of a soldier who is scared? I don't get Adams reasoning. To me being held prisoner and shot point blank in the head, in a public street is more demeaning and demoralizing that a photo showing fear in a fearful situation. I am not saying Adams was right or wrong in either situation, what I am saying is that he confuses me with his reasoning. Either you preserve some dignity for the subjects you photograph or you don't.The harm the photograph of General Loan shooting Nguyen Van Lem on February 1st, 1968 caused the General weighed heavily on Eddie Adams:
He never blamed me for the picture. he used a cliché that we here all the time. 'Eddie, you were doing your job, and I was doing mine'. I guess the picture...I'm told it did good things...but I don't want to hurt people either...I really don't.. It really bothers me. thats not my intention in other words, being a photographer, thats not what I want to do. (1)As a journalist, Adams place in the world was an observer. The event that took place Feb 1, 1968 was taking place with or without him. He took a series of photos that captured a moment in time. What happened afterwards, was out of his control, and if you think about it logically, had he not taken the photo, the event would have still taken place.
The issue of Adams feeling bad about the hurt he caused General Loan is a complex one that I hope to provide a decent enough explanation for in a later post. I am still trying to get my thoughts wrapped around it. I think I am close, and I think I will be pretty accurate in my analysis. What I lack is a soldier's perspective, especially one that has seen war. So speaking about how someone might be feeling about a situation I never experienced could be seen as pretentious on my part. But I have been cursed with an overwhelming abundance of empathy. So as long as I get my facts correct, I should at least make a plausible argument for my position. So the following speaks for Mr. Adams with that in mind.
When Adams decided not to take the photo of the young Marine who was scared, he did so for a completely human reason that trumped everything else that made him who he was. He was not a photographer, or a journalist, or a Marine, or a vet separate and distinct from the person he was and wanted to be. He knew the difference between what should be photographed and what should not:
You know,quite often there are photographers, and we'll not name any names,who used to make close-ups of bodies, dead Marines, dead soldiers,this is a lot of bullshit, you know, I mean, that's wrong, I mean they're very gruesome, you know, if you're going to bodies to show numbers of casulaties, if they're in body bags and they're stacked up they become just a body or a symbol, that's alright, I don't see,anything wrong with that. When you start making close-ups of a person's head half blown off or his arm's ripped off, you know, that'sa lot of crap. There were photographers like that, most of those people were the people that went over to make a quick name for them-selves and have since disappeared into the woodwork. (2)So there was a line whereby one should not cross. And in the taking of thousands of pictures over his lifetime, especially in times of war and during combat, it is likely that he stepped over this line from time to time. But given a choice, a choice he could freely make, he would knowingly and purposely not cross that line:
It was outside with a company of Marines, and we had close to fifty percent casualties, and the first time that I actually seen Viet Cong running all around with their guns around us, and we're on top of the hill and we're being rocketed, and there are dead Marines which are dug into holes,and so I'm lying on the ground with my head sideways, you become closer to the ground this way than if your head is up this way for shrapnel so as I'm lying there there was a Marine about eighteen years old, blonde hair, blue eyes, facing me,just about five feet away, so my head was this way and he was looking right at me this way and all the time all the operations I'd been in in Vietnam I'd never seen fear on a person's face like I did on his face.
I had, like with a 35 mm lens on my side and I slide it off in front of me and I couldn't push the button and so I brought it back again and swung up the second time because this kid, he was almost frozen with this expression. And I tried for three times and I couldn't push the button. And I was thinking, you know, I knew exactly what was going through my mind at that time; I knew that at that time my face looked exactly like his, and I didn't want anybody taking a picture of me. This kid, he left and it was only a few minutes that we were pinned down like that, but I could, that was the only time I've ever seen him, but I could identify him walking on the street today, like that. You know, it just left this mark, but I could see that picture, page one, cover, you name it, I mean I could see it in print everywhere and the impact it would've had but, you know, and I think, this is something else that I think we should talk about for a minute is I think there's a line what you photograph and what you don't photograph. (2)But he is a photographer and shoots more through instinct and muscle memory than by conscious choice. He tried three times to take that photo, a photo he knew should be taken from a photographer's perspective, but should not be taken from the perspective of who he is - his humanity - his sense of caring and connection to his fellow man. especially to this particular fellow Marine.
Now you can argue that he cared more about his people than others, but you need to look at his whole body of work and listen to what he says if you want to make that call. I have, and I can't. I think he was only human and if he stepped over that line it was more unintentional or in hindsight, than it was self-serving.
So to try and answer the question "How exactly is it ok to photograph and publish the shooting of any human being yet it isn't ok to even take a photograph of a soldier who is scared?" All I can offer is; it's complicated. Did we need to see General Loan shoot Nguyễn Văn Lém? How much time for a debate do you have? Like I said earlier, that photo happened at the same time the event took place. The photo that would have been taken of the young Marine would have done nothing but be just a great photo. But what about - like General Loan - the aftermath? Would it do harm to the person captured in the photo or would it bring about good?
That's the perplexing thing about the Loan photo. It hurt General Loan for the rest of his life, which bothered Adams immensely. But it is quite possible that that single photo brought about needed and necessary changes, so that the benefit to the all outweighed the harm to the one. And the Loan photo had something that was newsworthy about it - and upon seeing it - one could draw different conclusions about issues bigger than just the man named Loan in the photo. But the photo of the young Marine would not have that type of impact as Adams saw it:
People would read it wrong and they would call him a coward. He wasn't a coward. Everyone was frightened there. I knew that was going to screw up his life. (3)So that's my take on this. It's as complicated as the physician's mandate to first do no harm. Only a physician can really know where that line is, and between physicians that line can move back and forth considerably. I think Adams knew where the line was implicitly that day in the foxhole with that young Marine.
Next post: Eddie Adams: Historians have failed you. Part 1 of how many?