Essay 2- Eddie Adams and War Photography

Photography Application and Context elective essay

Discuss two of the following concepts, theories or critical models in relation to photography (time, the ‘look’ or ‘gaze’, studium and punctum, semiotics, intertextuality). Make an analysis of a photographic image or images related to your chosen concepts. Fully contextualise your chosen example.

“…The soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture- the threat, the interrogation. But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the Vietcong’s head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time.” Eddie Adams remembers the frozen moment Saigon Execution was captured, the moment that sparked the realisation of the brutality of the Vietnam War. The image was made on a Saigon street corner on 1st February 1968, showing Brigadier- General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Vietcong prisoner through the head at close range, the prisoner, a husband and father, Nguyen Van Lam. (Image 1) Collected stories surrounding why the victim was killed diverge from namely being a traitor working for both sides (the Vietcong and the South Vietnamese police) to being shot on account for killing many South Vietnamese and Americans. This photograph became and still is iconic in news reportage, and aroused long- running debates about the ethics of photojournalism. Did hiding behind the lens of a camera exclude the photographer from the harsh realities of what was happening, and distance the emotion felt when taking the photograph? The Vietnam War presented many ethical and moral situations not only for Adams; Nick Ut’s photograph Napalm Girl, raised issues of publishing the nudity of a young girl. (Image 2) That aside, the real question is how much should the public eye be allowed to view before photojournalism is taken too far?  Documenting the Vietnam War was something in the public interest, and something that is relied on today to illustrate history.
Publishing Saigon Execution ‘symbolised the violence and pathos of the Vietnam War in a single image’ (Val Williams, 2004), criteria Eddie Adams set out to accomplish, only finding the perfect, meaningful photograph after years in this lifelong career.
A year later in 1969, Adams won both the Pulitzer Prize and the World Press Photo Award, something he was surprisingly very unhappy about. He had wanted to win the Pulitzer Prize for years, but to no avail and suddenly he had achieved his dream, so what was the problem? “Photographs,” he said, “they’re only half truths.” From then on, he insisted it should not be included in exhibitions and refused to talk about the photograph; the ethical and moral questions surrounding it became something that greatly troubled him. Like Lewis Hine, he wanted to ‘show the things that had to be corrected; to show the things that had to be appreciated.’ (Lewis Hine, 1985), the photograph was only half of the bigger picture. As a photograph itself, unpicking the story beneath and analysing the depiction in terms of photographic codes is very important in coming to a conclusion about some of the ideas surrounding the photograph and furthermore the creator of the image.

In terms of Intertextuality where the relationships between Saigon Execution and other works are defined, Adams’ main body of work revolves around war photojournalism; other photographs in his lifelong career include coverage of thirteen wars, six American presidents and nearly every major film star as well as contributing to magazines such as Parade and Time. Boat of No Smiles (1977) was another work Eddie Adams created during the Vietnam War of a woman sheltering herself and her child from the sun aboard a refugee boat in the Gulf of Siam, (Image 3) one which the photographer was mistaken as the winner for the Pulitzer Prize, which was actually won for Saigon Execution. It was another masterpiece Adams’ put forward for the prize but to his disappointment, did not gain any recognition, however the look of hopeless distress emanates from the photograph very powerfully. ‘The general killed the Vietcong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half- truths… What the photograph didn’t say was what would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?’ illustrates the forceful opinions of Eddie Adams after the publishing.
Travelling to Vietnam during the war and recording the goings-on was an extremely dangerous task to undertake, many photojournalists deciding to journey together to keep as safe as possible. Another photojournalist documenting the unfolding events of the Vietnam War was Don McCullin, famous for Hue, Vietnam, captured in 1968 (Image 4) of a North- Vietnamese soldier lying dead in the mud, with the contents of his pockets and a bag of ammunition strewn before him as signs of his home life and his trade. Comparing this to Saigon Execution, the horrors of the war are illustrated shockingly to the viewer in both photographs, the themes of death/ imprisonment/ injustice are present in both. The scattered snapshots of the dead man’s dearest and family members take precedence in Hue, Vietnam; the contrast between the dead and the still living represents the vision the soldier was fighting for which makes this, in one opinion, more emotionally felt than any of the other works, bringing the belongings forward in the image furthers this idea; Don McCullin’s composition works really effectively.
Described as his best friend and brother, Nick Ut, creator of the famously classic Napalm Girl photograph (1972) shares the title along with Saigon Execution for the most iconic pictures from the whole of the Vietnam conflict, ‘seared into our collective memories of the war.’ (Nick Ut, 2004) It is impossible to come to a conclusion as to which of the photographs deserves the most credit for the representation of the Vietnam War. The pair travelled together to document through photography, sharing a unique bond that enabled Eddie to fully communicate his feelings for the masterpiece Saigon Execution only to Ut.
‘Zeitgeist- the spirit of the time; the general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.’ The aspect of time in any part of photography is vital in not only the manual production of a film- based image but critical to the reading of the subject likewise. In the present age, digital photography is predominantly used rather than film, the ability to edit photographs after they are taken in a wide spectrum of ways as is the case for digital photographs, this technique has become prevalently more popular; digital photography has changed the viewer’s aspect of time. Film- based photography has a bigger sense of when the image was taken; a nostalgic memory is something eminent in an old black and white film photograph. Photography is specific to the time it was taken, as quoting Roland Barthes: ‘a photograph was made there but is here now.’ Holding photographs that were made before the time the beholder was born is magical and referring back to Saigon Execution, however gruesome the image is to look at, whether from the zeitgeist of the image or the present, people will still experience similar feelings towards the photograph.
Of the time, the immediate reactions to the work would be fright, a sense of panic that the viewer could be held prisoner/shot just as the figure in the photograph is, fearful of personal safety and the safety of friends and family, and anger towards the lack of peace. Most of these emotions can still be transferred into the present; anger towards war is still strong with conflict in Iraq today and surrounding countries. Depicting the Vietnam War which has now ended, a fear of safety, panic and fright would not be so eminent in present attitudes, but this depends on the viewer’s life experiences, although a sense of shock and a tense atmospheric mood means appreciation of the photograph for what it is as a frozen moment, a ‘reflex’ image, and an outstanding iconic representation of the Vietnam War still stands today and always.


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Donald R. Winslow. (2011). The Pulitzer Eddie Adams Didnt Want. Available: Last accessed 14th Mar 2012.

Horst Faas. (2004). The Saigon Execution. Available: Last Accessed14th Mar 2012.

Lewis Hine in Halla Beloff, Basil Blackwell (1985), Camera Culture, p.100.

Nick Ut. (2004). Remembering Eddie. Available: Last accessed 25th Mar 2012.

Phillip Knightley. (1975). The First Casualty. United States: Andre Deutsch Limited.

Random House Dictionary. (2012). Zeitgeist. Available: Last accessed 22nd Mar 2012.

Val Williams. (2004). Eddie Adams- Photojournalist of the Vietnam War. Available: Last accessed 14th Mar 2012

Wikipedia. (2012) Eddie Adams (Photographer). Available: Last accessed 25th Mar 2012.