While we can argue about the truth of this statement in an age when anyone can create videos, there is no denying the power of the still image.
The most shocking photo – and about the most shocking thing I had ever seen as a teenager, happened on this day, February 1, 1968. It was Adams’ photograph of the killing of Nguyễn Văn Lém (code name: Bảy Lốp) on a street in Saigon. Lém, a Viet Cong captain suspected of murdering South Vietnamese Lt. Col. Nguyen Tuan and his family, was made to stand before brigadier general Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, chief of the national police, who summarily executed him with a swift shot to the the head using his personal Smith & Wesson .38 Special. (Gen. Loan later said, “If you hesitate, if you didn’t do your duty, the men won’t follow you.”)
In 2019 I was fortunate to meet and talk to Adams’ widow, Alyssa Adkins, Deputy Editor of TV Guide, and buy the great photo book she had helped put together with a large number of Adams’ images.
Edward Thomas Adams (12 June 1933 – 19 September 2004) was a combat photographer in the Korean War while serving in the United States Marine Corps. From 1962 to 1980 he worked two stints for AP (Associated Press). His photographs made more than 350 covers for TIME and Parade magazines.
On that fated day in February 1968, just a couple days after the beginning of the Tet Offensive, he and NBC News television cameraman Võ Sửu were walking the streets of Saigon and saw what they thought might be a street interrogation as a prisoner was pulled out of a building. Both raised their cameras and began to photograph and film. As they did, Gen. Loan walked up, raised his pistol and summarily fired a bullet into Lem’s head.
Both the resulting photograph and Võ Sửu’s film coverage became indelibly linked to the brutal truth of a war that had become staple evening fare on television sets throughout the United States: our South Vietnamese ally engaged in the same terrible behaviors as the North Vietnamese they fought. It was something I thought of often as I approached my 18th birthday with an impending, subsequent draft lottery. The stills photo went on to win the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and the pronouncement from TIME magazine declaring it, “one of history’s 100 most influential photos.”
Was this the photograph of which Adams’ was most proud? No. That honor goes to his photograph “Boat of No Smiles” (1979) showing a 30-foot fishing boat loaded with Vietnamese fleeing their homeland. Like the photo subject of this post, it was influential: it eventually led Congress and President Jimmy Carter to open immigration to more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees.
Over time Adams became sorry the Saigon shot came to be known as his most famous image:
“Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. … What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?”…. This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time. … I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote, “I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.”– Eddie Adams. “Eulogy: General Nguyen Ngoc Loan”. Time Magazine; July 27, 1998.
There are so many interesting side notes to this story.
Similar to the idea in science that the very act of an individual viewing an event affects the event itself, Susan Sontag wrote about Gen. Loan, “he would not have carried out the summary execution there had they [journalists] not been available to witness it.” In 1978 there was an attempt to revoke Loan’s permanent residence ‘green card’ and Adams’ spoke in his defense with President Jimmy Carter halting the deportation, writing, “such historical revisionism was folly”.
Proving that no matter where you live it’s who you know that can shape your life, Loan studied pharmacy at university before entering the army where he was a classmate of Nguyễn Cao Kỳ. Kỳ became head of the air force (where Loan flew as his wing-man) and then, after a coup, the Prime Minister. Loan opened a pizzeria in Burke, Virginia outside Washington, DC. from the late 1970s until 1991.
Elements of connection in this story keep coming right up to the present. South Vietnamese Lt. Col. Nguyen Tuan who, along with his family, had been killed by Nguyễn Văn Lém, had a 10-year old son, Huan Nguyen. Huan did not die in that 1968 attack despite being shot three times and laying for hours next to his dying mother. Huan came to the United States and in 2019 became the first Vietnamese American to reach the rank of U.S Navy Rear Admiral.
I have tried to track down the NBC cameraman Võ Sửu without success. I will update this post if I ever find out more about him (tho the NBC site on the footage does not add more information.)
Finally, as famous – or infamous, as the photo of Gen. Loan shooting Lém is, Adams’ copyright was forfeit because the U.S. Copyright Act of 1909 requires that a copyright © notice accompany a photography every time it is published. Many newspapers published Adams’ photo, often cropped, in the days after February 1st without adding a copyright notice.