Philip Jones Griffiths, a crusading photojournalist
whose pictures of civilian casualties and suffering were among the
defining images of the war in Vietnam, died on Wednesday at his home in
London. He was 72.
The cause was cancer, said Richard Hughes, an actor and activist who befriended Mr. Griffiths in Vietnam.
The book that grew out of Mr. Griffiths's reporting there, "Vietnam
Inc.," is considered a classic, and its publication in 1971 helped turn
public opinion against the war. Its harrowing pictures — of a blackened
burn victim, a thin woman's body splattered with blood, a South
Vietnamese boy in soldier's fatigues, his head tiny beneath a huge
helmet — were the kind not often seen in newspapers. And Mr. Griffiths, a
pacifist passionately opposed to the war, never considered himself a
traditional war photographer.
"I saw myself as producing a historical document," he said in a 2002
interview on the Web site Musarium.com, adding: "Journalists should be
by their very nature anarchists, people who want to point out things
that are not generally approved of."
"It's by criticizing that society that humanity has made progress," he said.
While critical of the way the United States was conducting the war, Mr.
Griffiths also included in his book many humanizing images of American
soldiers at a time when they were often being demonized back home. One
of the most stark showed an American offering a canteen of water to a
Vietcong fighter who had survived a stomach wound for three days,
holding in his intestines with a cooking bowl. A similar scenario is
played out in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film "Apocalypse Now."
"There were some bad G.I.'s who did terrible, terrible things," Mr.
Griffiths said in a lecture at the Frontline Club in London in January.
"But for the most part they were kids who were confused. They were not
the enemy, to me." The enemy was usually governments and bureaucracies,
he often said, and he saw photography as one of the best means to bear
witness against their failings.
"Virtually the whole of society believes in what they believe not by
direct experience but by what they've been told," he said. "We
photographers are in this exalted, privileged position of actually going
out to find out for ourselves, and that's why we're so dangerous.
Because we were there. We saw what happened."
Mr. Griffiths was born in Rhuddlan, a village in Wales, and came to
photography only after an aborted career as a pharmacist. While working
at a drugstore in London, he asked for the night shift so he could take
pictures during the day to try to sell to newspapers.
"Never underestimate the power of boredom," he said in a January interview with The Independent of London.
He told a Welsh interviewer in 2004 that "coming from a country being
swallowed up by its neighbor gave me a natural sympathy for the Davids
over the Goliaths of this world."
Mr. Griffiths was deeply influenced by the work of Henri
Cartier-Bresson, a founder of the Magnum photo agency, where Mr.
Griffiths became a longtime member and served as president from 1980 to
1985. Besides Vietnam, Mr. Griffiths reported from dozens of other
countries. He covered the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and worked in Cambodia
from 1973 to 1975.
In 1996 a retrospective of his work, "Dark Odyssey," was published, and
in 2001 "Vietnam Inc." was reprinted by Phaidon Press, with a new
introduction by Noam Chomsky. In 2004 Mr. Griffiths published "Agent
Orange: 'Collateral Damage' in Vietnam," a photographic examination of
the death, deformities and suffering caused by the use of that
Mr. Griffiths is survived by two daughters, Katherine Holden of London
and Fenella Ferrato of Manhattan and Damascus. He never married, telling
one interviewer that he refused to sign papers that would allow
"bourgeois society to dictate my emotions."
The kinds of pictures that became "Vietnam Inc." were often difficult
for Magnum to sell to publications, and at times Mr. Griffiths was so
low on money that he considered leaving Vietnam. But in 1967 he managed
to take pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy in Cambodia in the company of a
British aristocrat rumored to be her romantic interest at the time; the
proceeds from that paparazzi coup allowed him to continue his war
In interviews he said that he realized early on where his journalistic
priorities lay. A London newspaper editor once told him to remember to
answer the five basic questions in every photo caption: who, what, why,
where and when. Mr. Griffiths said the first two and last two struck him
as merely perfunctory.
"It's the one in the middle that counts," he said. "To me that's our task, to say 'Why?' "
By Randy Kennedy
For The New York Times