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3:22 pm
Mon November 11, 2013

Remembering Vietnam Through Photographs

Many of the iconic images from the Vietnam War were pictures taken by AP photographers: A monk setting himself on fire in a city square; a general, his arm outstretched, about to shoot a man; a little girl, naked and crying, her clothing burned off by napalm.

Some of these images are as familiar to many Americans as their own family photo albums. Now these photos are collected in a book called “Vietnam: The Real War: A Photographic History by the Associated Press.”

Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the Associated Press, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the images. To see 11 images from the book, see the slideshow above.

Interview Highlights: Santiago Lyon

On photographer Horst Fass’s work in Vietnam

“When we look at his work, I think the picture that you mentioned in the introduction that stands out to me, is the image of the South Vietnamese farmer holding up his dead child to an armored personnel carrier full of South Vietnamese troops. It’s just a heartbreaking image that sort of reflects the futility that people often feel in a war, where they feel absolutely helpless and overwhelmed by circumstances and violence beyond their control.”

On the Buddhist monk photo by Malcolm Browne

“Malcolm was a correspondent, so his specialty was the written word. But like many correspondents in that day, they were given cameras and encouraged to make photographs, so they were doing cross-format journalism 40 years ago. The particular image in question of the monk sitting there, with a grimace of sorts on his face as he’s engulfed in flames, that image really resonated because it was so dramatic. And it’s said that President Kennedy remarked to his ambassador at the time, having seen the picture, “We’re going to have to do something about that regime.” So it’s an example of photojournalism reaching into the halls of power, and through its power, having an effect on all the seen events.”

On  whether or not the photographer intervenes

“It’s always a difficult dynamic for a photographer in the field when faced with such dramatic scenes and circumstances. At what point do you put the camera down and intercede, or do you conversely maintain your journalistic objectivity and keep making pictures? And I think, as in the case of Nick Ut, who made the picture of the napalm-covered girl running down the road — after he saw that she was in terrific pain because of the injuries she had, he made sure that she got to the hospital by taking her in his own car and made sure that she was looked after and survived. And she’s still alive and lives in Canada and does activism work around peace, the end of warfare and all that, and she and Nick are still close friends. So I think at some point, the photographer reverts to their original condition of compassionate human being.”

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And it's all here. The photo of the monk self-immolating, the general, arm outstretched about to assassinate a man, the little girl naked and crying, her clothing burned off by napalm, the man holding up the body of his dead child like an offering to the diffident South Vietnamese soldiers above him on their tank. They're all here, iconic images of the Vietnam War, as familiar to many Americans as their own photo albums. And they were all taken by Associated Press photographers.

Now these pictures and others are collected in "Vietnam: The Real War: A Photographic History by the Associated Press." There's a slideshow at hereandnow.org. And a warning: these pictures are disturbing, which is why they jolted many Americans out of their comfortable seats and into the streets to protest the increasingly troubled conflict.

The AP Saigon Bureau opened in 1950. It attracted the very best journalists. Unlike some of their World War II counterparts, they were often critical of the war and they were criticized for that. But their observations ultimately proved true. Santiago Lyon is AP's director of photography now. He's at their studio in New York. Santiago, start with the late Horst Fass. He grew up during World War II in Germany. What pictures of his should we pay attention to?

SANTIAGO LYON: When we look at his work, I think the picture that you mentioned in the introduction that stands out to me, is the image of the South Vietnamese farmer holding up his dead child to an armored personnel carrier full of South Vietnamese troops. It's just a heartbreaking image that sort of reflects the futility that people often feel in a war, where they feel absolutely helpless and overwhelmed by circumstances and violence beyond their control.

YOUNG: What did Horst Fass say about having to see those images through the lens? I mean, you want to just take the camera and swing it at the soldiers and say, you know, respond to this man.

LYON: You know, I never had conversations with Horst about the specific photographs or even the specific feelings that he had covering this war. I think with a lot of people who document this sort of thing, there is a certain privacy. They prefer to let their photographs do the talking for them.

YOUNG: Yeah. Here's another one from Horst Fass, an American soldier with a hand-lettered slogan on his helmet, war is hell - tight shot of that. Talk about Malcolm Brown. He's the one who took the picture, and there's a series, a whole series of pictures, because the AP office had been alerted that the Buddhist monks were going to go to the square and do something.

And sure enough, one sits in the square, others come forward and pour gasoline on him and he sets himself ablaze. This is in 1963. He did talk about that picture. He said, the only thing that keeps you going in a time like that is to just keep taking pictures.

LYON: Yeah. Malcolm was a correspondent, so his specialty was the written word. But like many correspondents in that day, they were given cameras and encouraged to make photographs, so they were doing cross-format journalism 40 years ago. The particular image in question of the monk sitting there, with a grimace of sorts on his face as he's engulfed in flames, that image really resonated because it was so dramatic.

And it's said that President Kennedy remarked to his ambassador at the time, having seen the picture, we're going to have to do something about that regime. So it's an example of photojournalism reaching into the halls of power, and through its power, having an effect on policy and events.

YOUNG: And again, the Buddhist monks were protesting persecution by the regime of the South Vietnamese - the U.S. ally in the war. We mentioned also the picture of the South Vietnamese chief of national police shooting a suspected Viet Cong official on a Saigon street, right on the street. It was a picture taken by Eddie Adams. And after the picture was taken, he turned - the chief of national police turned to Eddie and said something. What did he say?

LYON: I think he said something to the effect that this man had killed a lot of his people, the South Vietnamese people and the American people. And that was his way of justifying his assassination of the prisoner. You know, with that image of the execution, one of the things that often resonates with me is that there is newsreel footage of the same event.

YOUNG: Yeah.

LYON: But when you see the still picture, that's what stays with you, that moment frozen in time. It's one of the most remarkable war photographs ever taken, the instant somebody dies. I mean, it's on a par with Robert Capa's falling Spanish militia man from the Spanish Civil War. It's one of those seminal war images that has never really been repeated.

YOUNG: But more as a photo than as a video, and in fact, you have the frames from Eddie Adams who took more than one photo next to it. And that one, that one, of all of them, that's the one.

LYON: And that photograph haunted Eddie Adams for many years. And I think his way - one of the ways he dealt with that was by setting up a tuition-free workshop for photographers 25 years ago, which still goes on to this day, where he educated photographers free of charge up at his - in his barn up in Upstate New York. And his widow Alyssa carries on that work today.

YOUNG: We read in your book that the photographers were often criticized by people back home for not stopping some of these things that they captured.

LYON: Well, it's always a difficult dynamic for a photographer in the field when faced with such dramatic scenes and circumstances. At what point do you put the camera down and intercede, or do you conversely maintain your journalistic objectivity and keep making pictures? And I think, as in the case of Nick Ut, who made the picture of the napalm-covered girl running down the road - after he saw that she was in terrific pain because of the injuries she had, he made sure that she got to the hospital by taking her in his own car, and made sure that she was looked after and survived.

And she's still alive and lives in Canada and does activism work around peace, and the end of warfare and all that, and he and - she and Nick are still close friends. So I think at some point, the photographer reverts to their original condition of compassionate human being.

YOUNG: Yeah. We've spoken to Nick Ut about that photo. Let's listen.

NICK UT: After I took a picture of Kim Phuc, I laid down my camera and pick her up and, you know, carried to my car and from there to the hospital to save her life.

YOUNG: Well, they are really quite something - again, that you look at them and you think, I know this picture. There's one of troops displayed across an area on a hill, morning mist is shrouding them, so many are injured and one is holding his hands up to the sky. When I was younger, I thought that he was praying, you know, crying out to God, but he's guiding a helicopter down. Here's another one with - you just see a machine gun being held up above water and hands, and the infantrymen carrying it is underwater. He's fording a river. What are some that jump out to you?

LYON: Well, the picture that you described on the cover of the book of the soldier with his arms up in the air, that picture functions precisely because his gesture can be interpreted in so many ways. It can be a gesture of prayer. It can be a gesture of surrender, as though his arms are above his head because he's been ordered to put his hands above his head. It can also be interpreted as - that he has just been wounded and he is somehow falling backwards having been shot.

I mean, it's one of those images that can be interpreted in different ways. And then you read the caption, which is ever-important in terms of giving context to an image, and you realize that he's guiding a helicopter into evacuate some of his wounded fellow soldiers.

YOUNG: Santiago Lyon is the Associated Press director of photography. He's been speaking to us about the new compilation, "Vietnam: The Real War: A Photographic History by the Associated Press." It's really quite something. Santiago, thanks so much for speaking to us about it.

LYON: Thank you.

YOUNG: That photo, which along with others, was taken by Art Greenspon. He survived the war. Four AP photographers did not. They are Huynh Thanh My, Bernard Kolenberg, Oliver Noonan and Henri Huet.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.