Archive for the ‘War’ Category
This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. Iconic Photos look back at how it all began — and how we covered it.
Hitler’s first appearance in Iconic Photos date from 1914, when a figure allegedly identified as Adolf Hitler was seen outside Field Marshals’ Hall listening to the announcement of the First World War. After the war, his rise in a defeated and dejected Germany was meteoric. In 1926, he became the Führer of the National Socialists; the then-37-year old was also already a millionaire, thanks to his book Mein Kampf.
His party won the plurality in the elections of 1933. On January 30th 1933 when President Paul von Hindenburg, hero of a World War, called upon Hitler, villain of another, to be German Chancellor. Less than a month later, the Reichstag burnt down in a pivotal event which paved the way for the rise of Nazi consolidation. Hitler fingered Communist agitators as arsonists; civil liberties were suspended, and countless politicians and journalists were locked up, and the communist party was outlawed. When Hitler visited Tanneberg — the site of a famous battle in which East Prussia was liberated from the Russians during the First World War by Hindenburg — later that year, the ceremony was uncomfortably patriotic and militarist. Germany rearmament began on those blood-soaked fields.
A strong re-emerging Germany was on display in pomp and splendor of Berlin Olympics in 1936. There were a few hitches for the Nazis, like Jesse Owens winning 100 m sprint and smashing Hitler’s theories of racial superiority, but the Olympics were a great success for Germany. The next year, the Fuhrer welcomed the Duke of Windsor, the ci-devant Edward VIII, to his Obersalzberg retreat.
Hitler’s plans for a Greater Germany were sown years ahead. Already in 1934, he has orchestrated the murder of Austrian dictator Engelbert Dollfuss, who was vehemently against Nazism, and set Austria on the course that would eventually led to its capitulation to his Third Reich in the Anschluss of 1938. A few months later, British Prime Minister was in Munich to sign the Anglo-German Non-Aggression Declaration. Sudetenland was transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany in an attempt to satisfy Hitler’s desire for Lebensraum.
A little over a year later, emboldened German troops were in Warsaw, having divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the world was in a cataclysmic world war yet again.
I am long fascinated by a photographer’s take on power, such as Platon’s photos of world leaders at the UN or Avedon’s study of America on the bicentennial year. Flipping casually through a Life magazine from 1944, I stumbled upon a photoessay called ‘Leaders of Britain’ by the great Yousef Karsh.
After the success of his photograph of Churchill, Karsh crossed the Atlantic in 1943 onboard a Norwegian freighter carrying a cargo of explosives from Canada to Britain. He stayed in London to photograph wartime leaders and intellectuals, whose portraits were published in the Illustrated London News to raise the nation’s morale. Of this selection, it is interesting to note what Life (and Karsh) decided to publish in 1944.
In the photo-essay at least, Britain of 1944 was a martial society; the King appeared in uniform, alongside Sir Charles Portal, the head of the Bomber Command; Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Admiral Cunningham, who was already secretly supervising the preparations for the D-Day landings, and submariner Max Kennedy Horton.
And then there were a smattering of politicians who would re-shape post-war Britain. Two future prime ministers were there (Attlee and Eden) but other faces proved to be more influential in the coming years. Plans of Lord Woolton, firstly as Minister for Food and then as Minister for Reconstruction, were more immediately felt, but Bevin as the Minister for Labour would enshrine an industrial settlement that remained in place mid-1980s. Cripps as the supremo for both economy and finance, was at the Exchequery for three years in the post-war cabinet, and would preside over a devaluation, rationings and nationalisation of coal and steel industries. Even Lord Mountbatten — photographed as Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command but later Viceroy of India — left behind a bitter legacy in the subcontinent.
Intellectuals photographed ranged from George Bernard Shaw on the cover to writer H. G. Wells to cartoonist David Low. Others photographed by Karsh during his sojourn in England [but not published by Life] included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Halifax, Field Marshalls John Dill and Jan Smuts, and actor Noel Coward. Life opened the essay which the person the magazine deemed most powerful in Britain — the newspaper proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, the master of assembly line, who was the minister of supply in the war cabinet.
Notably missing from the essay was the photo that started it all — Churchill’s growling portrait from 1941.
In 1960, a group of firebrand Congolese managed to outmaneuver the Belgian government into giving them independence, rather than a phased transfer of power it envisioned. Prospects for the country were bleak: in the country of 14 million people, there were only three native Congolese in its 1,400-strong civil service, and two were recent appointments. In 1960, only 136 children completed secondary education and thirty graduated from university. There were no Congolese doctors, no secondary school teachers, nor army officers.
In many ways, the Congo was just a mining camp. It was uranium from Katanga region in the Congo that fueled the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The country produced nearly 10% of the world’s copper, 60% of its uranium, 70% of its cobalt, and 70% of its industrial diamonds, all of it under auspices of the Union Miniere which reported annual sales of $200 million USD in 1960. The company was loathe to give it all away and urged the resource-rich provinces of Katanga and Kasai to secede.
The war was bloody and would claim over 100,000 lives. The United Nations intervened, but Congo’s new Prime Minister Patrick Lumumba quickly antagonized the UN mission, led by the respected Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche. Despite his later mythic status as a secular saint of anti-imperialism, Lumumba was far from an agreeable figure. He hated and later purged other moderate politicians. On his only visit to the US, he shocked the officials by demanding a female companion for him — ‘une blanche blonde’ he specified.
Meanwhile, the secessionist war accelerated. Lumumba’s battles against Baluba tribes took on genocide fervour according to the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Among the western casualties was an American journalist named Henry Taylor, his death magnified and scrutinized even more for he was the son of the American ambassador to Switzerland. Taylor was killed in a clash between government troops and Baluba tribesmen — a scene (above) well-documented by Paris Match photographer Andre Lefebvre who was traveling with Taylor at the time. The United States was now slowly being sucked into the conflict, not least by arrival of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops into the Congo on Lumumba’s invitation.
The Eisenhower administration supported a palace/army coup in the Congo; Lumumba first sought asylum in an UN compound, and then headed off to Stanleyville, his power base; in a characteristic move, he made frequent stops to give fiery speeches to local villagers along his trip. He was denounced, arrested and handed off to Baluba soldiers. On the night of 17th January 1961, he and two others put on the back of a pick-up truck headed to a remote clearing and — eternity.
Other players from that tumultuous year not long survived. Hammarskjold was next to go — he died in a plane crash en route to mediate the Katanga ceasefire talks. The mining state itself was wound up in late 1962, when the United Nations put an end to its secession in a series of decisive raids. On December 31, 1966, the Congolese government nationalized the Union Miniere, the powerful conglomerate that started it all, seizing over $800 million of the company’s assets.
Not much is known about Andre Lefebvre (1919 – 1984). His photos from the ambush that killed Taylor were grisly, and showed government troops machine-gunning and bayoneting the Balubas. Lefebvre himself took a bullet to his feet in the crossfire. He retired from Paris Match in 1968.
Vietnam was to be a photographer’s conflict. A familiar tread for many struggling artist, photographer, or bohemian was the offices of the Associated Press in Saigon, where the legendary photo editor Horst Faas held court. Among many who came to Faas in 1966 was a petite 21-year old French girl named Cathy LeRoy. Defying her factory-manager father, she worked 18 hours a day as an interviewer in a Paris employment agency to save for a one-way ticket to Saigon. She only carried $200 and a Leica M2. Faas gave her three rolls of black and white film and assurances to give her $15 for each picture used.
The U.S. Army was skeptical of LeRoy at first. She didn’t speak English (apart from four-letter words she would soon pick up from the Marines); she was 5ft, 85-pounds, comically carried cameras and equipment close to her bodyweight, and trundled around with size-6 combat boots too big for her size-4 feet. She was also soon be banned from the frontline for six months for cussing a senior officer. But she spent more time at the front — three weeks a month — than any other woman journalist in Vietnam, and a year later, she became the first accredited journalist to participate in a combat parachute jump, joining the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Her pictures from Vietnam were stunning. Her photos from Battle of Hill 881 evoked “ghosts of Iwo Jima and Pork Chop Hill,” Time magazine wrote in May 1967. Her photos of corpsman Vernon Wike during the battle was a triptych of an all-too-familiar scene: in the first, Wike has two hands on his friend’s chest, trying to staunch the wound; in the second, he tries to find a heartbeat; in the third frame, “Corpsman In Anguish”, he realized the man is dead.
LeRoy herself came very close to death two weeks later. Her Nikon barely stopped a piece of mortar shrapnel that ripped open her chest. She said that she thought the last words she would ever hear were, “I think she’s dead, sarge.” During the Tet offensive in 1968, LeRoy was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese during the battle for Hue. LeRoy’s photos of her captivity later made the cover of Life, ‘A Remarkable Day in Hue: the Enemy Lets Me Take His Picture‘. She was the first person to take photos of North Vietnamese Army Regulars behind their lines.
In 1972, Leroy shot and directed Operation Last Patrol, a film about Ron Kovic and the anti-war Vietnam veterans. She was in Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city in 1982. Her pictures there were equally poignant. LeRoy died in 2006.
Since 1941, Ho Chi Minh had been rebelling against the French colonial rule in Vietnam. Sixty years ago, that struggle reached its climax at a broad vale known as Diên Biên Phu. The French, fifty thousand of whom ruled over the colony of 20 million people, grossly underestimated their enemy’s strength and capabilities, initially unaware that the Vietnamese had been supplied with anti-aircraft and heavy artillery by Red China. In fact, as the first French paratroops were dropped into the valley in November 1953, the French government hoped for a swift victory that might just win back public support for the war in Indochina.
It turned out to be a heroic, if foolhardy, last stand. Generals responsible raised doubts whether a defense was feasible as early as January 1954. President Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about warring, privately despaired that the fort was indefensible. But media coverage was almost mythic. Paris Match called Diên Biên Phu “the capital of heroism”. For Time magazine, the attacking Vietnamese general was a ‘Red Napoleon’, and as it was during equally bleak sieges of Lucknow and Cawnpore, Christian iconography was invoked. French papers frequently termed the fort a ‘calvary’. Geneviève de Galard, the only female nurse inside the garrison, became an ‘angel’ (and found herself plastered all over magazine covers [below, middle] and honored with Légion d´honneur and Congressional Medal of Freedom).
Meanwhile the situation on the ground was spiraling out of control. A group of firebrand paratroopers took over combat operations from the camp’s reluctant aristocratic commander General de Castries and were becoming de facto leaders of the camp. By mid-March, Vietnamese artilleries encircled the camp and made the airstrip unusable. By the end of that month, all supplies had to be made without landing. The garrison, however, stood for further forty days, before falling on 7 th May 1954.
An international peace was quickly drawn up: Vietnam was to be partitioned and granted independence. The end tally was bloody. The battle cost France sixteen battalions, two artillery groups, and a squadron of tanks. Some 12,000 French soldiers were imprisoned for a few months in camps where mortality rates exceeded 70 percent. On the Vietnamese side, the losses were above 20,000: many perished even before the battle began to hurl up cannons into the mountain pass; “death volunteers” threw themselves at French defenses with TNT strapped to their chests.
The defeat at Diên Biên Phu was seismic for both Paris and Washington and put them en course towards bloodier conflicts. In France, the Fourth Republic fell and General de Gaulle was returned to power. Soldiers from France’s African colonies in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal who fought at Diên Biên Phu and saw the imperial power brought low returned home to begin their own independence struggles, and France decided to quietly withdraw from Africa. The French military, however, took the setbacks in Vietnam – and two years later, in Suez – bitterly. It would soon defy both public and political opinion to mount a scorching war in Algeria.
As for the United States, the war was an unsettling development. Its policy of containment could not work if newly independent countries were to choose Moscow-educated leaders, as with Ho in Vietnam, Nassar in Egypt, and Lumumba in the Congo. Diên Biên Phu itself was a symbolic domino, chosen precisely to cut off the Communists from entering the neighboring kingdom of Laos, and its fall was alarming. But coming as it did so soon after an inconclusive conflict in Korea, there was not much political will in the Congress for yet another foreign entanglement. An especially vocal critic, the one who argued against letting the French use American air fields, was an ambitious senate minority leader from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson.
The siege of Diên Biên Phu was widely covered in the French press; L’Aurore on 24 March published the first photos, which were sent back with letters and evacuatees. The most extensive coverage was in Paris Match, France’s equivalent of Life magazine, which published 144 photos from Diên Biên Phu between 20 March and 15 May, and devoted five front covers to the battle. Its headlines were equally grand: ‘L’épopée de Diên Biên Phu (The Epic of Diên Biên Phu, 8th May); Le Calvaire et la Gloire du Général de Castries (The Sacrifice and Glore of General de Castries, 13th May); and ‘La Tragédie des blesses” (The Tragedy of the Wounded, 22nd May).
Match had an inside man, literally. Its photographer, Daniel Camus, was doing military service with an army cinema unit when he was parachuted into the garrison. His photos covered about the action of the siege and the desperate intimacy of the besieged, as was in the above photo of the paratroop “mafia” of young airborne officers who had effectively taken control of the fortress (Langlais, Bigeard, Botella, Brechignac, Touret, de Seguin-Pazzis et al). Camus and another photographer Jean Péraud sent back photos from inside the siege until the garrison fell and they were sent to a reeducation camp. During the 300-km march to the camp, Péraud was killed when trying to escape with paratroopers’ commander Marcel Bigeard. Camus was released four months later from the camp.
There is currently a fascinating exhibition going on in Paris at oft-overlooked Musée de l’Armée. “Indochine: Des Territoires et des Hommes, 1856-1956” follows a century of French colonial rule and runs through Jan. 26.
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles in history. For six months in 1942/43, Nazi Germany waged a total war on the city; over 1,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on the city in the initial assaults alone, reducing Stalingrad’s city centre into rubble. These scenes of devastation were covered by Emmanuil Evzerikhin, among whose most memorable photos was that of Barmaley Fountain, a miraculously intact statue of children playing in front of a destroyed city square.
Evzerkhin was a Soviet Jew who had already been disgraced once, for a surreal Soviet offense. In 1939, he was purged for staging a photo: while photographing factory workers, he wrote down that he took photos at 1 p.m. However, the time on the clocks suggested 7 a.m. By “staging” the clocks, Evzerikhin was guilty of subverting the system: the purpose of his assignment was to prove that all workers were already at their places at 7 a.m. When the war with Germany began, he was rehired as a war photographer. His poignant photos from Stalingrad — such as a musician saving his instrument (below) and a girl sheltering in bombed ruins — were widely printed in the press; he received an Order of the Red Star and “For the Defense of Stalingrad” medal.
After Stalingrad, Evzerikhin went on to document Ukrainian and Belorussian fronts. He saw the liberations of Minsk, Warsaw, Konigsberg, and Prague. On his return to Russia, however, he found opportunities fast evaporating. He was after all, a Jew; soon afterwards, he demoted again in anti-Semitic purges .
Russians viewed and remembered the Second World War differently, not in sallow faces of Holocaust survivors or the horrors of concentration camps freed, but in sieges endured, and fathers, husbands, and sons lost. Victories at battles of Moscow and Stalingrad were refashioned as truly ‘Russian’ victories, as opposed to Soviet victories. Soviet Russia did not suffer total occupation, as had the Baltics, Belarus, or Ukraine, nor was it much marked by the Holocaust compared to Ukraine or Belarus. This distance from the horrors of the Holocaust was to deny Russia certain lessons; when the war ended, Stalinist antisemitic pogroms were just around the corner.
Soon after the war, Stalin cancelled a Soviet documentary on the Holocaust, which highlighted that the “victims of fascism” were primarily Jewish. By 1953, the Soviet leadership was drafting Jewish denunciations which lifted phrases straight from Nazi propaganda. A fitting epigraph was penned by Vasily Grossman, a Jewish writer soon to be denounced; in sequel to his monumental novel of the Battle of Stalingrad, For a Just Cause, he had a Gestapo officer quip, “Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.”
Photos from Syria are too gruesome to publish. Clicking on the black square will take you to a reddit site which has complied them. Caution advised.
Last week, there were allegations that President Assad has gassed his own citizens. A U.N. team sent to inspect the site were delayed and attacked.
To the naysayers who doubt that Assad would not have used chemical weapons in the twilight days of a civil war that he was gradually winning, we have this to say: the last century was filled with despots who were not rational — Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot — and mistakes had been made trying to rationalize their actions. Even the Allies used a heavy-handed approach in firebombing Dresden towards the end of the Second World War, motivated by revenge, war-weariness, and need for the enemy’s morale defeat. In such light, Assad’s motivations become clearer.
By repeatedly emphasizing a hypothetical ‘red line’ over chemical weapons (while ignoring other inhumanities in Syria, from shelling civilian quarters to using cluster bombs and landmines), the West has painted itself into an intractable corner. To do nothing will undermine its credibility and embolden Assad (and many a tyrant observing how the West will respond to this crisis). On the other hand, it is dangerous to rush into action; in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Libya where the West intervened, the results of the Arab Spring are increasingly murky, and for Britain and the United States, at least, it will be their fourth military action in the Middle East in twelve years, and the public is growing weary.
This house had supported the Syrian rebels throughout 2011 and 2012. However, it now seems the rebels are dominated by hard-core fighters, who tend to be Islamist Manicheans, under whom, we reckon, whatever little religious freedom tolerated under President Assad, will evaporate. Therefore, this house advocates for an UN-brokered ceasefire, guaranteed by an international fleet in the Mediterranean, while the U.N chemical weapons inspectors do their job on the ground. Out of this ashheap, we believe a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Syria can still be salvaged.
In the past few years, this blog looked back at over 900 photos. Many are famous. A few are indelibly iconic. But only a handful could claim they have changed the course of history. This was one such photo.
I have written before about the messy disintegration of Yugoslavia, a topic which still is a thorny and polemical subject to write about (if comments are anything to go by) two decades after the events. In a few days in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces massacred around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, which was supposedly under the UN aegis. We stood idly outside, our rhetoric changed from ‘Never again’ to ‘Once More’.
Darko Bandic, a freelance Croat photographer working for AP, recalled the above photograph he took near the annihilated town:
I had arrived at this massive makeshift refugee camp in Tuzla early in the morning, around 5.30am. Tens of thousands of distraught women and children had poured into the camp the previous day.
Just as I was about to enter the camp, two or three young girls told me they had spotted a woman hanging from a tree in the woods. They took me to her. I was actually a bit confused. I didn’t know exactly what to do. From the direction I was walking I could see her face, but obviously I didn’t want to shoot that. I shot just a couple of frames, then went back to the UN guard. I remember he was a Swedish soldier and I told him what I had seen. He said: ‘For now, let’s take care of the ones who are alive.’
I saw so many really awful things in Bosnia’s war, that was just yet another of them. I did wonder what horrific things must have happened to her to drive herself to take her own life. But I never found out. I never even knew her name until a year later.”
Her name was Ferida Osmanovic and her photo soon appeared on front pages all over the world. It was a metaphor for the Unknown Victim of the Balkan wars: faceless, defenseless, humiliated. At their Oval Office meeting, Vice President Al Gore told President Clinton, “My 21-year-old daughter asked about this picture. What am I supposed to tell her? Why is this happening and we’re not doing anything? My daughter is surprised the world is allowing this to happen. I am too.” His outrage was shared by many UN officials, NATO and US Army’s top brass.
President Clinton, whose initial comments on Srebrenica were lawyerly (‘the fall of Srebrenica undermined the UN’s peacekeeping mission’), was pushed towards an intervention by Gore. On the Capitol Hill, Senator Diane Feinstein was equally vehement; in a memorable speech, she used the photo to underline the plight of raped and murdered civilians in the war zone.
By July, the UN had given its military forces the authority to request airstrikes without consulting civilian UN officials. A comprehensive air support for other safe zones and retaliatory air strikes by NATO were launched against the Serbs. The bombing campaign finally brought the Serbs to the negotiating table in November 1995, when the Dayton Accords put an end to three and a half-year long Bosnian War.
[For details of Ferdia’s surviving children, the Guardian story here.]
The most striking thing about the photo — and Srebrenica massacre — was that it happened in 1995, exactly a year after the Rwandan genocide. My memory of both events is vague, but I saw them on CNN daily growing up. In fact, they were amongst my first memories of the world outside my family. They have shaped who I am today. No one — but especially no children — should see similar horrors unfolding, firsthand or otherwise.
Auschwitz. Srebrenica. Rwanda. Congo. Syria.
The list goes on.
The blog likes to note there is often no truth in photography. What better photo to illustrate this point that this one used in propaganda by both Communists and Fascists, and in two wars a decade apart.
In the late 1970s, as the gerontocractic fascism of Francisco Franco drew to a close, historians revisited his arrival onto the world stage during the Spanish Civil War, now viewed in retrospect as the Dress Rehearsal for the Second World War. They pointed out the above photo as an evidence of atrocities committed by Franco’s troops on their prisoners of war during the Civil War, an eerie precursor of Fascist crimes to come.
Throughout the Civil War, both sides exploited the power of news media and newly-popular photography, at times using the same photographs. Back in 1938, the above photo was used by the Falange – the Spanish Fascists – to denounce the barbarous nature of the Spanish Republicans. In Corriere della Sera (which toed Mussolini’s line after the removal of its editor Luigi Albertini), it was labelled as the communist International Brigaders holding the heads of Spainish patriots.
The photo, which does look like a poor Photoshop attempt, is often attributed to David Seymour, the future co-founder of Magnum who made his name during the Spanish Civil War. It was not clear who actually took it and it was not even clear when it was taken. In 1938, when L’Humanité, an organ of the French Communist Party, saw the photo, it used it to denounce the French colonial empire in North Africa.
In that aspect, L’Humanité was closer to the truth (but perhaps accidentally). The photo was perhaps taken during the Rif War (1921-1927), when Spanish and French Foreign Legions brutally put down a Berber rebellion in Morroco led by Emir Abd-El-Krim.
The photo first appeared fittingly in Memoires d’Abd-el-Krim, a book whose pedigree was also in doubt. Jacques Roger-Mathieu claimed that the book was dictated to him by Abd-el-Krim onboard the vessel Abda which was to transport the defeated emir to his exile on the island of Réunion. Although, it appeared with a grand subtitle of “la confession ou les confidences”, many now doubt the book’s authenticity, noting it was filled with “absurdities of all sorts, lies, and anachronisms”. As per Roger-Mathieu, the photo depicted Spanish Legionaires with the heads of Rif fighters.
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To recap: Lee Miller was covering WWII for Vogue, and working alongside David E. Scherman, a Life staffer. Scherman took the above photo of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler’s house in Munich — the house where Mr. Chamberlain signed away Czechoslovakia six long years earlier. The photo was taken on the night after the duo visited Dachau, on April 30, 1945 — earlier in the day, Hitler had committed suicide in Berlin.
As far as contact sheets are concerned, there isn’t any. There is also a missing shot from this series, which allegedly shows Miller undressing/getting into the tub, and which was burnt in the darkroom. [Anthony Spencer has tried to recreate it in “It cries itself to sleep” (1973)]. Scherman slept in Hitler’s bed; Miller had her picture taken at the Führer’s desk. It is believed that there was also a similar photograph with the roles reversed: Scherman as the subject, and Miller as the photographer.
Now there is a new better Lee Miller online archive. These new unpublished shots at Hitler’s house do not clear any of the mysteries above, but some of these archival images were never before seen. Termed NSBs (Never Seen Befores) on the website, they are all very interesting though. Go and check them out.
When the North Vietnamese tank No. 843 broke down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon on April 30 1975 — just hours after the last American helicopters had left — it signaled the end of an era, and that of a long and bitter war. Most Western journalists had been evacuated from South Vietnam at this point, but that defining moment was captured on video and on camera film by two who stayed behind.
The first was made by Neil Davis, an unflappable Australian who waltzed back into his Saigon tailor’s to collect a Safari suit he had ordered before as the North Vietnamese were bearing down on the city. His video of the tank breaking through the gates was first broadcast on an NBC News Special Report: Communist Saigon, only nearly a month later on 26 May 1975. Davis died covering a coup in Thailand, his still-running camera recording his own death.
The photographic record of the moment was made by an equally intrepid figure — Francoise Demulder, who would later become the first woman to win the World Press Photo Award. A student of philosophy (and a model), Ms. Demulder travelled to South Vietnam with her boyfriend in the early 1970s. To cover their travelling expenses, the couple quickly became embedded with the U.S. military, she who had no formal training in photography taking war photos and her boyfriend driving her around, covering the fighting, and dropping off their photos at the AP office. She stayed behind to take the now-famous photo above.
Thus ended the two-decade long conflict in Vietnam; five million tonnes of bombs and 1.7 million tonnes of Agent Orange were dropped over both Vietnams. Alas, peace did not return to the region. Two weeks later, the Khmer Rouge took control in the neighboring Cambodia; by November, Laos too was in the hands of the communists. As for the long suffering Vietnamese (three million of whom perished during the war), there was little respite as their government would soon be involved in two other fratricidal conflicts with China and Cambodia.
Scene. The devastated street of an Arab capital. Children and residents flee barefoot as their slumtown is burnt down by the government militia. At the first glance, the photo looks no different from a thousand others we have seen before and since, in color and in black-and-white.
But dear reader, would it surprise you if the elderly woman begging for her life was a Palestinian, while her masked attacker with a World War II rifle was a Christian Phalangist? When Francoise Demulder — one of the pioneering female French photographers — took the photo on the morning of January 18th 1976, the Phalangists in the Lebanese capital of Beirut had just massacred 1,000 Palestinians, set alight the Muslim homes in the unfortunately named suburb of La Quarantine, and forever shattered the myths of plucky Maronites defending their homelands in the Levant.
Demulder had couriered her film by a taxi to Damascus where it was loaded to a Paris-bound flight and delivered to Gamma, her photo agency. They remained unpublished until Ms. Demulder returned to France. Their publication was a watershed moment; according to Demulder, “from then on it was no longer good Christians and wicked Palestinians, and the Phalangists never forgave me”. The photo, now titled “Distress in Lebanon”, would eventually won the World Press Photo award, Demulder becoming the first woman to do so. She later recounted in a TV interview that only the young girl and her child seen the background survived, the militiaman having killed himself in a game of Russian roulette.
For the next three decades, Lebanon too was embroiled what it would seem to many of its denizens a protracted game of Russian roulette. La Quarantine — itself a reprisal for the murder of four Phalangists — was repaid in kind by the PLO with an attack on the Christian community at Damour. Syrian, Israeli, and eventually multinational troops intervened and then interfered, each with differing level of success; Lebanon lurched from crisis to crisis to this very day.
[There will be more on Demulder in my very next post. To be continued.]