Coverage of Wars — A Photojournalist's Perspective

Coverage of Wars — A Photojournalist's Perspective

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As the U.S. prepares to drawdown its troops from Afghanistan this month, the beginning of a complete withdrawal from America's longest war by 2014, many still draw comparison of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Vietnam War, which had ended several generations ago.

LA Beez Director Julian Do recently interviewed Nick Ut, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, for his take on the current coverage of modern conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ut started his photojournalism career with the Associated Press during the Vietnam War. He's currently with the AP Los Angeles bureau.

Julian Do: Arguably the three most iconic images coming out of the Vietnam War are your harrowing picture of a naked young Vietnamese girl fleeing her burning village, Eddie Adams' split-second shot of the cold execution of a Viet Cong by Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, and Hugh Van Es' photo of the last evacuating U.S. helicopter on a building rooftop, which epitomizes the closure of the Vietnam War. Both Adams and you received Pulitzer Prizes in 1969 and 1973, respectively. Did you know Adams and Van Es?

Nick Ut: I knew both men since our Vietnam days. They were both mentors and friends. Hugh passed away in Hong Kong two years ago. He stayed in Vietnam with UPI after the war to continue covering the aftermath. But because (the) Hanoi regime suspected him of being a CIA agent, which made his job difficult ... he left for Hong Kong a year later in 1976.

Eddie was like a big brother to me. He taught me a lot. I spent time with him during his last days in New York back in 2004. He got cancer. Eddie wanted to make one final visit to Vietnam with me, but his health was so bad we never made it.

Nick Ut and Phan Kim Phuc visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Kim Phuc is now a Canadian citizen, author, founder of the Kim Phuc Foundation and was an UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. (Photo courtesy of Nick Ut)
Nick Ut and Phan Kim Phuc visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Kim Phuc is now a Canadian citizen, author, founder of the Kim Phuc Foundation and was an UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. (Photo courtesy of Nick Ut)

JD: What did you do after the Vietnam War ended in 1975?

NU: I stayed with the AP, which assigned me to the LA Bureau and I've been here ever since. Once in America, I no longer had to brave myself on the battlefields. My assignments are diverse. I've covered presidential races, fires, Hollywood celebrities at the Oscars, Emmy Awards and teachers' strikes. I even cover sports like the Lakers' and Dodgers' games. Since I had never been to any football or hockey games, I had to teach myself these sports in order to take good shots of a football touchdown or a hockey goal.

Essentially I had to make an adjustment from a war photojournalist to an all-around photographer. I enjoy the transition and variety but do miss the excitement of battlefield reporting.


JD: Have you been back to Vietnam?

NU: In 1989, I went back to Vietnam with George Esper, who was the AP Saigon Bureau Chief during the Vietnam War, to open an AP bureau in Hanoi. Our first assignment was to cover the U.S. government's recovering effort of the remains of American MIA servicemen. I was actually very nervous about coming back since the U.S. and Vietnam then had yet to normalize their relations. And I was there to probe and report about what's going on in Vietnam since the war ended in 1975.

As I could speak Vietnamese and blend in with the locals, all of my movements were carefully monitored and controlled by Vietnamese security people. I tried to take pictures of the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison where John McCain was held, but they wouldn't let me. I wanted to capture scenes of daily life in rural Vietnam, but I was forbid from doing that too. After a few months of limited freedom to do my work, I decided to leave. But although I am not based there, Esper and I do go back on assignments frequently. I even have an arrangement to conduct workshops for Vietnamese photographers once every two years in Hanoi.

JD: How would you compare the coverage of Vietnam War with the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

NU: Vastly different. In Vietnam, we photojournalists pretty much were free to tag along missions and even roam about the country at our own risk. Yes, we took horror images of dead bodies, injured soldiers, burning villages and monks. But we also captured pictures of humanity like mothers carrying for their children and peasants tending their farms.

But it's the graphic images from battlefields that had greatly affected public opinion about the war in Vietnam. Those are true depictions of wars. There are no such things as clean and simple wars.

That's why beginning with the invasion of Panama under Bush Sr., the Pentagon has instituted a tight policy to restrict and control the movements and images produced by war photojournalists and videographers.

As soon as the U.S. began the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and (2002) years later in Iraq, many of my photojournalist colleagues from the AP and other news organizations headed over to the Middle East. I was about to go, but my friends who had been there advised me to stay. Most became frustrated because of the many restrictions on photography. Dead soldiers, no. Body bags, no. Injured soldiers, no. Civilian deaths, no.

Often times only one or two photographers were allowed to tag along some missions. Their photos became pool photos for all news agencies. Several photographers ignored the rules and ventured out of their own. But they immediately got black listed and had to go home. The control of war images was so tight that some of my friends also voluntarily packed their bags.

JD: When talking about the Vietnam War, people often think of the image of the naked girl running away from her burning village, which is your photo. When talking about the war in the Pacific, it's the Iwo Jima picture and the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed by nuclear bombs. What about Iraq?

NU: The cliché that a picture (is) worth a thousand words is very true. Those pictures you mentioned have that. I think some of the most iconic pictures coming out of the Iraq War are those from the Abu Ghraib prison.

Now these inhumane photos were not taken by any professional photojournalists nor accompanied by any reporting. And yet these images conveyed to the world that there was something wrong with the U.S. military's conducts and ultimately our country's moral standing. As a result, the military had to clean itself up, which is a good example of good things (that) can happen when showing the true face of wars. If these pictures did not come out, we might have gone down this dark path even farther.

JD: You believe that the true face of wars should be presented in full?

NU: I do. The world needs to know the details of wars, whether it's just or not. Photos tend to be a better reminder that wars are always nasty, and the impacts can last several generations. We have seen that among the Vietnam vets and the returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq. The graphic images can influence people to think twice, three times, before deciding to enter a conflict or not.

Besides the Pulitzer and other awards over the years, Ut will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Journalist Association at its 2011 National Convention in Detroit.

Julian Do is coordinator for LA Beez, a project of New America Media.