Monday, 23 April 2007

Profile: Larry Burrows

My interest in photography started because of two entirely different events but both were key in developing my interest in the subject.

The first was the purchase of my first camera, a 126 format Hanimex 88x and the second was a 1979 BBC film about Vietnam war photographer Tim Page that was aired one afternoon when i was off school sick.
The Hanimex camera offered the technical start i needed but the Vietnam images shown on the TV introduced me to a new type of photography that was visually powerful and instantly the photography and the photographer's stories fascinated me.

Vietnam produced many great photo-journalists like Tim Page, Henri Huet and Philip Jones Griffiths. The war, however, took its toll on the press with 135 photographers dying during the conflict. One such photographer was Larry Burrows who I regard as one of the best Vietnam war photographers. Maybe even THE best !

Burrows started out as a tea boy at LIFE magazine's photo lab in 1942 and finally became a working photographer in 1945. By the early 1960's, Larry was working in Vietnam where US miltary advisors were involved helping the South Vietnamese fight the Vietcong.
Larry's experiences during the war altered his attitude towards the US involvement in Vietnam but his photography remained true to its subjects; politics aside, the bravery of the troops was always admired but Larry would be quick to point out military mistakes.

His greatest piece of work, and one i would recommend to any student of photojournalism to study, is One ride with Yankee Papa 13 which follows a crew member of a helicopter rescueing a downed US pilot. The crew, during a flight to drop off a group of soldiers, successfully rescue one of the downed helicopter pilots shot down during the mission, but his wounds are so severe that he dies and the frustration felt by the crew of the helicopter at the loss of life suffered that day is clearly shown in the images. The pictures were published in LIFE Magazine in April 1965.

Although Larry Burrows will always be connected with the Vietnam war, he did actually photograph other conflicts and news events around the world including India, the Middle East and The Congo. It was while in India on assignment that Larry learned of the invasion of Laos by south Vietnam and it was to the war that his name will always be connected that he returned one final time.

Larry Burrows was killed in February 1971 when the helicopter he was travelling in, was shot down after becoming lost.Three other photographers including Henri Huet, another veteran photographer of the war, were killed.

The loss of the helicopter saw the beginning of the end of the golden era for the photojournalist in Vietnam as it became increasingly more and more difficult to operate. By 1971, the US military refused to transport the press making transportation to the stories difficult. After the US pulled its remaining troops out in 1973, Vietnam became a war that most people wanted to forget and it remained like that until Saigon fell to the communists in 1975.

Vietnam was the last war where the press had true freedom of movement and expression. Most conflicts since Vietnam have been carefully stage managed by the military power involved. The US realised far too late the power that the photographic image could have over the folks back home. The mistakes concerning the handling of the media during Vietnam were noted by governments around the world and the media found itself under tight control during the conflicts that followed Vietnam. After three decades of carefully stage-managed conflicts, modern media like the internet and digital photography, is starting to make it increasingly tougher for governments to control the message with bloggers and video diarists using the web to publicise the stories. Just look for the various blogs that cover the Iraq conflict to see how just about anyone can be a photojournalist in the 21st century.

A book of Larry's work called Larry Burrows: Vietnam is available to buy from Amazon and other retailers.

Visit an online gallery of Larry Burrows work at:

Top and middle images by Larry Burrows
Bottom image by Sergio Ortiz

Top image:
F-102 jets with their afterburners alight on a dawn bombing mission along the Vietnamese coast, 1966 .

This image appeared on the front cover of LIFE magazine in February 1966 , one of 15 cover images Larry achieved over a ten year span from 1958 - 1968.

Middle image :
Coming into the landing zone, Farley returns fire. Burrows triggered a motor-driven Nikon with 21mm lens by remote cable as he crouched out of sight behind Farley. Mounted only three inches from the M-60's muzzle, after eleven missions over six days the front of his lens shook loose and fell.

Bottom image:

Photographers Larry Burrows (centre), Henri Huet, Keisaburo Shimamoto and Kent Potter in a helicopter minutes before it was shot down over Laos in February, 1971. There were no survivors.

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