Monday, 31 March 2008

Profile: Philip Jones Griffiths

A wounded woman during the Tet Offensive in 1968

This month saw the loss of one of the UK’s finest and most respected photojournalists, Philip Jones Griffiths to cancer. He was 72.

A photographer since the early sixties, Philip Jones Griffiths will be best remembered for one of the best photographic pieces to immerge from the Vietnam war that became the best-selling 1971 book ‘Vietnam Inc. - a book that helped turn the American public away from supporting the Vietnam war. He was, and still remains one of my top five favourite photographers and has been a major influence on my photography for many years.

Philip Jones Griffiths was born in Rhuddlan, Denbighshire, Wales in 1936 and it was there that he started to learn about photography via Henri Cartier Bresson’s work. Amazingly Griffiths didn’t become a professional photographer until 1961. Previous to that he had been working in the science industry for ten years after studying chemistry at Liverpool university. His photography career would cover the globe and eventually lead to being president of the Magnum photo agency which he had joined as a full member in 1971.

Griffiths work covers a broad spectrum of subjects from photographing the people of Wales to his fantastic work documenting the suffering of the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam war. While many journalist were in awe of U.S firepower, Griffiths managed to see past the spectacle and realise that it was hearts and minds that would win the conflict. The comments made in the late 1960’s are all too relevant in the new 21st century battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan; making Vietnam Inc’s message even more poignant, forty years after the images were taken. Many of the images in Vietnam Inc deal with the poor hearts and mind strategy employed by the US military - something often mentioned today as a failing in the Iraq and Afghanistan

Philip Jones Griffiths encountered many problems during his time in Vietnam but the biggest he faced was credibility as much of his work was never published. The US armed forces accreditation used to take into account a journalists past track record for putting the news across to the public. With Griffiths, this often led to not being seen as an important figure in the media coverage of the war. The Vietnam Inc project was an important piece of work because it was an ongoing record showing the increasing cultural chasm between the US/ARVN forces and the ordinary Vietnamese person. This was best demonstrated by the images of troops destroying Vietnamese villages because of possible links to the Viet Cong - a policy highlighted as hurting US war efforts because it didn’t understand the basic social principles and values of the rural Vietnamese.

I had the pleasure of viewing his work at an exhibition in Cardiff about ten years ago. The images were printed as large photographic prints and were just breathtaking to view close up. The disturbing image of the Vietnamese 'little tiger' boy who had reportedly killed two Vietcong ( his mother and a schoolteacher it was reported) has always stayed in my mind. It seemed to reflect everything that was wrong with the war. It is no surprise then, that several of the images taken were used to form scenes in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now.

The increasing criticism of the Vietnam war, combined with the public’s shifting support for the war led Griffiths to be be banned from returning to Vietnam. In later years , Philip Jones Griffiths would return to photograph the ongoing effects of the war. Agent Orange had been used in huge quantities during the war and had contaminated vast areas of Vietnam. Griffiths work concentrated on the legacy of the war left for future generations of Vietnamese to endure. In 2005 he returned to photograph the country for a book entitled ‘Vietnam at Peace’. The recent photographs are just as powerful as his war images.

Philip Jones Griffiths images of the war still have relevance today; to such extent that it led Noam Chomsky to comment that: "If anybody in Washington had read that book, we wouldn't have had these wars in Iraq or Afghanistan". Whilst I would disagree with the notion that it would have stopped the wars from taking place, I certainly believe that a lot of people would have thought twice before commencing. Such is the power of the images and the strength of Philip Jones Griffiths vision.

Philip Jones Griffith 1936 - 2008

All images by Philip Jones Griffiths
Top left - Philip Jones Griffiths - Image by Graham Harrison
Middle right - Injured and tagged Vietnamese woman
Middle left - Ten year old ARVN soldier
bottom right - US soldier with Vietnamese child


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