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Eddie Adams, a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist and creator of an image that some historians credit with hastening the end of the Vietnam War, died on this day in 2004. His most well-known contribution to the iconology of photojournalism was a shot of a South Vietnamese general executing a suspected Vietcong prisoner on in the Saigon streets, formally captioned “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon” but also known as Saigon Execution.  His timing was perfect – the bullet had entered but had not yet exited the victim’s head. The year was 1968.

Saigon Execution (Eddie Adams - 1968)

Saigon Execution is probably the second-most recognizable photograph from the Vietnam War period, trailing that haunting , deeply disturbing shot from Nick Ut of a naked Vietnamese girl who’d just been napalmed.

I can’t imagine anyone over the age of 40 who has never seen both of those photographs. They both altered the course of American history and I can’t conceive of anyone who could look at either of them without a sense of revulsion. One came at at time when protests against the war were becoming increasingly violent, the second when when the war was clearly tearing our nation apart even as we were scrambling for a workable exit strategy.

Napalm Girl (Nick Ut/AP - 1972)

As viewers we’re free to read just about whatever we want into any image that’s put before us. Ut’s image, even without knowing the context of the war or who was fighting whom, conveys a sense of terror and, because many in the shot of are children, a sense of injustice. These kids clearly didn’t have much of an understanding of unchecked aggression or stemming the tide of global communism. They’re just kids, and they’ve just been scarred, mentally, physically, or both, for life.

Adams’ shot is harder to read without a caption. If you didn’t know it was an officer in the South Vietnamese army holding the pistol, you could reasonably conclude that it was a gangster or drug runner or angry father shooting that poor bastard in the head. The knowledge that it’s a general in a foreign army who, while enjoying the support of the American Government, summarily executes a prisoner in full view of an Associated Press photographer without even a casual nod to legality or justice is pretty disquieting. I had always thought that it was Adams intent to disturb American with this photograph. Boy, was I ever wrong.

In this video on Youtube, Adams freely admits he felt “nothing.” It was just another guy getting killed in a place where people were getting killed all the time. He took his film to the office and went out to lunch. He described the General in question, elsewhere, as a “hero” for shooting an unarmed man in the head, thus extending the definition of the word hero well beyond my comfort zone. He “…apologized in person to General Nguyen and his family for the irreparable damage [the photo] did to the General’s honor while he was alive.” I’m wondering what the word “honor” means now, too. I think I’d be a horrible photojournalist.

Nick Ut, by the way, took that girl to a hospital.

I’m not saying anything at all about the Vietnam War itself, and I cannot judge Eddie Adams because I didn’t live in his world or see the things he saw. I was 10 years old when he took that picture and still in High School when the Vietnam War ended. What I’m thinking about now is the power we, the viewer, hold over the meaning of images. What I saw here was nothing like what Adams saw at the scene or felt about it afterwards.

I mentioned in a post last night that once you set your images free in the world, they don’t belong entirely to you anymore. This is an exclamation point on that statement that I didn’t expect to find.

RXM

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  1. By Two Updates « The ADD-Challenged Eye on 03 Jun 2012 at 11:51 am

    […] her defection to her happy and productive life in Canada. I discussed the Napalm Girl photo in this  post last September. I am still just as moved by that image and really glad that the girl in the photo, Kim Phuc, is […]

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