[10 April 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
My life and death got mixed up with their lives and deaths, doing the Survivor Shuffle between the two, feeling the pull of each and not wanting either very much.
—Michael Herr, Dispatches
I become the person I am photographing.
—Eddie Adams 2002
“Eddie was not your thoughtful, reflective photographer,” smiles Morley Safer. “He was a grunt. He went out and he did his job. And he looked for trouble on and off the job.” Safer’s memory of Eddie Adams is typical, at once forceful and glamorous. The artist looms here, rowdy and magnificent, whether he was riding out into dark wet jungles with U.S. troops or slamming down shots in a Saigon strip bar. But Eddie Adams was also not that guy. He was, in fact, remarkably reflective, an artist who pondered what his pictures could mean, how they might shape or reshape lives, how they might become history.
Adams had good reason to ponder. His best known image—the 1968 execution of a Vietcong guerrilla by the chief of police of Saigon, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan—was almost instantly notorious. Circulating via the AP, Adams’ employer, the photo appeared on front pages all over the world, coming to represent what was wrong with this and every war, the betrayals and brutalities, the hypocrisies and the horrors. While some observers blamed the photo—at least in part—for the decline of public support for the war, others credited it with bringing to light U.S. error and initiating the war’s end, which would come a long seven and a half years later, when Saigon fell.
Adams’ toughness, his work and especially his self-reflection are at the center of An Unlikely Weapon. Susan Morgan Cooper’s self-distributed documentary is basic in form (interviews, photos, more interviews), and provides some expected background on the artist, stories told by his colleagues and friends, his son August and his wife Alyssa. What makes it special are Adams’ own thoughts on what he and other journalists were doing, the effects of their pictures, how representations of truth might become other sorts of truth, undulating and beyond control.
Adams and his fellow wartime journalists—and he covered some 13 wars during his career—all saw friends die, whether those friends were brand new or had been known for long weeks or years. They recorded atrocities and acts of valor, moments strikingly unique moments and utterly mundane. Like the soldiers they followed, they rotated home or never found their way back to The World. They were frustrated and sickened, heartened and transformed. When he returned Stateside in 1966, he says, he was “bitter.” “I go to the AP office,” he remembers, “And it’s all these little fat guys sitting around at their typewriters and nobody cares. And then I got bothered so much that I wanted to go back. I didn’t belong here with rest of these people.”
During his next tour in Vietnam, beginning in 1967, Adams made his Pulitzer prize-winning photo, the one attributed with changing the course of what the Vietnamese called the American war. He was acutely aware of his relationships with his many subjects. They helped to define him, his professional reputation and personal integrity. “You became part of them,” he says of the men he followed in Southeast Asia. “As they’re crawling through the bushes and you go up ahead of them, forward of them so you can get a picture of them coming towards the camera, they respected you for that.” The risk of such romance, of course, is that you begin to imagine yourself aligned with causes and beliefs.
The trick is that photos are not precisely truth, frames of instants then frozen forever. “Pictures are very important because people believe photographs,” says Adams. “That’s the eyewitness, so that’ll confirm a person’s belief in the story. And the picture could be a lie.” Still, he sighs, “We’ll look at that and it becomes a real thing.” Adams daily negotiated a self-preserving distance from his work—at least until he became forever attached to the image of the execution. He was haunted by that one, he says, bothered by its effects on its subjects (including General Loan) as much as by the benefits it conveyed on its taker. Gordon Parks here describes the special pain of photographing death. “You are trying to catch the last breath of a person dying, their last gasp… To realize that the person realizes that I was there to record their last breath. You almost want to say I’m sorry for being here. You do what you have to do.”
In the case of Adams’ photo, the effects were even more far-reaching. Safer recalls that it became a symbol of the war’s failure. “The fruitlessness of it,” he says, “The pointlessness of it, the who are the good guys and who are the bad guys of it. One cannot help but make comparisons with Iraq now.” The photo inspired imitations and anti-war demonstrations, and Adams’ life was changed—he gained a new kind of freedom to travel and work, he was recognized and celebrated. Still, he was bothered by it—the photo, the war, his success as a function of both. He went on to do other, brilliant work, including photos of impoverished children, Vietnamese refugees (“The Boat of No Smiles”), peace workers throughout the world (Speak Truth to Power, made with Kerry Kennedy), Penthouse spreads, and celebrity portraits.
Adams maintained his independence in these joint projects, some crass and commercial and some overtly “noble” (he challenges the title of the Kennedy book/performance/organization: “What does that mean?”, he asks, before he offers his own, more straightforward version, “Soldiers Without Guns”). And he also pursued his art, his expanding sense of what pictures do. “The most powerful weapon in the world,” he wrote in his journal, “has been and can be a photograph.” As they show experience, they also become experience—subjective, inherently compassionate, and ever shifting. An Unlikely Weapon remembers Adams, who died in 2004 of ALS, as a pioneer, genius, and troublemaker, sharing his truths and challenging ours.