The Image That Shaped a War
Frequently in our industry, images define campaigns. They sometimes capture, in a few million pixels, what even the greatest of copywriters can’t muster in words. At their zenith, they can even define wars.
When Tim wrote on the death of former AP Photographer, Horst Faas, a few weeks back, I took some time out to remind myself of the power of this man’s talents and abilities. During the decade between 1962 and 1972, Faas directed the Associated Press’ Vietnam operations out of Saigon. Both taking and editing some of the most iconic and opinion-shaping images of the war. Indeed despite his own denials, Haas, it has been argued, contributed considerably to the changing shape of the war – particularly in terms of U.S. public opinion. One particular shot stands out from all others.
The date was February 1st 1968 and the Tet Offensive was but a day old. Civil War was raging on the streets of Saigon and Eddie Adams, one of Faas’ many acclaimed photographers in the field, stood on the corner of a busy intersection in Cholon – the capital’s Chinese quarter. The photograph that Adams captured in that moment, of South Vietnam’s National Police Chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a young Vietcong sympathiser in broad daylight, arguably did more to undermine support for U.S. involvement in Vietnam than any other single event alone.
In the years that preceded 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson had spent considerable time and energy executing a much-needed public relations strategy in support of the war in Vietnam. Yet when this one shot aired on all three U.S. television networks that evening, Johnson’s campaign seemingly imploded in an instant. Its impact, both on viewers across the country, and on various policy-makers in Washington, was enormous. Faas and Adams had contributed significantly to the undermining of Johnson’s Vietnam strategy and ultimately, to the end of the war. In the words of U.S. historian Alan Brinkley, ‘no single event did more to undermine support in the United States for the war’.
Unlike so many of the other iconic photographs that Faas and his team took of the war – often showcasing the initial moments after death – Adams’ shot actually captured the moment of death itself. And despite the fact that the prisoner in question had killed at least eight people in the moments prior to his own execution, the brutality of the photograph is still the only part of the story that truly endures.
The lesson for us here is obvious. In a moment where our industry is moving rapidly towards new media, we should never forget the power of the still image and its ability to shape events. In the late 1960s the colour TV came of age. And yet as John Cory and others have argued, it’s the black and white photograph of that moment that people still remember.