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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ethical Issue or is it just me?

At the moment one of the classes I am taking is Photo History II. Every week we are studying various photographers from the past and some very controversial photographs along the way. This week the photo of discussion was this one:

Vietcong Execution, Saigon, 1968 Photo by Eddie Adams

Horst Faas, photographer and photo editor now retired from The Associated Press, remembers the day he saw Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution of a Vietcong in 1968.
Running my Nikon eyeball quickly over a roll of black-and-white film from Eddie Adams, I saw what I had never seen before on the lightbox of my Saigon editing desk: The perfect news picture - the perfectly framed and exposed "frozen moment" of an event which I felt instantly would become representative of the brutality of the Vietnam War.
The 12 or 14 negatives on that single roll of film, culminating in the moment of death for a Viet Cong, propelled Eddie Adams into lifelong fame. The photo of the execution at the hands of Vietnam's police chief, Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, at noon on Feb. 1, 1968 has reached beyond the history of the Indochina War - it stands today for the brutality of our last century.

Now on with my thoughts on this. Later in life Adams made two recorded statements about some of his photos. To understand my ethical dilemma please do visit this link and listen to both of Adams' statements:

So in one statement Adams says that he was in a position to take a photograph of a US Marine that was extremely afraid. Adams states that this could have been one of the best photographs of his career, however he couldn't make himself take the photo because he felt that the fear would show so strongly in the photograph that people back in the US would mistake the fear for cowardliness. Adams goes on to say the marine wasn't a coward, everyone there was scared.

In the other statement Adams don't seem to understand why the above photo of the execution of an unarmed Vietcong prisoner was such a controversial photo.He didn't understand why people where upset about the image. Adams does indicate that he regrets that the photo caused a lot of hurt for a lot of people. Adams does say that he don't understand the upset over the photo. Adams reasons that it was war and people die in war.

So here is my reasoning in this.  It is war, people do die in war, people are also afraid in war. Lets take out the idea that this was a war, lets just look at the images in question. The execution photo was a photo of an unarmed man, who's hands where bound behind his back, soldiers all around him. there was no way this guy could have attacked, hurt or killed any one, he was a prisoner. Being a prisoner is in so many ways a humiliating situation for anyone friend or foe. In the instant that the photograph was taken Adams indicates that he didn't even realize the shooter was going to do more than threaten the prisoner and was shocked that Loan actually pulled the trigger and shot the prisoner. Regardless of  his status in the war, this prisoner had a family and he was a human who if put to death should at the very least be put to death in private.

Later Adams talks about meeting t the prisoner's wife.

Thirty-two years later, I met his widow, who still lived in their home in a southern Saigon suburb and mourned him. In a corner of the living room, behind plastic flowers, was a heavily retouched photograph of Nguyen Van Lam, who, as a Viet Cong, had the "secret name" (alias) Bay Lap. Yes, he had been a member of the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong. He just disappeared shortly before the Tet Offensive, and never came back.

Eddie Adams' photograph made him a martyr, but, no, she does not have and does not want to see the photograph of her husband's death. She will mourn Nguyen Van Lam until his body is found, she said in 2000, when the Vietnam government celebrated the 25th anniversary of the end of the war.

How exactly is it ok to photograph and publish the shooting of any human being yet it isn't ok to even take a photograph of a soldier who is scared? I don't get Adams reasoning. To me being held prisoner and shot point blank in the head, in a public street is more demeaning and demoralizing that a photo showing fear in a fearful situation. 
I am not saying Adams was right or wrong in either situation, what I am saying is that he confuses me with his reasoning. Either you preserve some dignity for the subjects you photograph or you don't.  


  1. On the Loan photo he says "I guess the picture...I'm told it did good things...but I don't want to hurt people either...I really dont.. It really bothers me. thats not my intention in other words, being a photographer, thats not what I want to do."

    I think showing the fear on that kid, the same fear he had, would have maybe hurt the young man. Marines are a proud bunch, but they are also human.

    I am writing a number of posts on that famous photo and all the misinformation in print and the misuse of his statements about what it was.

    I am fascinating how much the written word is not absolute. My blog is

    I found this interview with Adams at:

  2. I wrote a post today on this topic.