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.
For more than 10 years, Horst Faas covered the Vietnam war for the AP. Travelling alone, he jumped out of helicopters, tramped through villages, rice paddies and jungles, and took photos of street fights, interrogations and executions. One day in January 1964, Faas and the South Vietnamese Unit he was travelling with came across a suspected collaborator. A South Vietnamese ranger uses the end of a dagger to threaten punishment to the farmer for allegedly supplying government troops with wrong information on Communist guerrillas. Faas recalled, “If the prisoner didn’t talk, they would be hurt and even if they did talk they would be hurt or killed. In this case, the knife was a threat — and I think he used it. The photo won a Pulitzer.
Faas came to develop his own code to decide whether his war photos were too graphic. “If it was a really exception event, one crazy man, then we wouldn’t use it. But this event was not a singular event, not even occasional. It was a routine event. That’s the story that pictures like this told newspaper-reading people during the weary days of the war.”
Horst Faas joined the A.P. in 1955 at the age of 22 and began his illustrious photojournalism career by covering the Congo crisis in 1960. There, he bribed Congolese soldiers with Polaroid snapshots to gain access to important events. The practice enabled him to be in the right place to take the last picture of Patrice Lumumba (above).
Patrice Lumumba who helped win Congo’s independence from Belgium in June 1960 was a passionate nationalist who failed to tame this volatile ‘state without a nation’ containing many different ethnic groups. His fiery and controversial independence day speech culminated with Nous ne sommes plus vos macaques! (We are no longer your monkeys!),* but Belgium continued to interfere. It backed a rebellion in the southern province of Katanga, and Lumumba sought Soviet aid to quell the rebellion. Within ten weeks, he was toppled by a military coup backed by the CIA.
He was put under house arrest, while a CIA officer was dispatched with a tube of poison toothpaste. Before his assassin arrived, Lumumba escaped from his house arrest, but rearrested from a plane in Elizabethville. He was beaten and humiliated in front of diplomats and journalists, and was on the truck that would inevitably carry him to his execution when the above picture was taken. It was Lumumba’s last photo. A month later, he was executed — put up against a tree and shot by a firing squad directed, so it seems, by Belgian army officers. His body was buried on the spot, later dug up, and dissolved in acid. The bones were ground up and scattered to the winds to make sure there was nothing left of him. The colonel who deposed Lumumba, Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) would rule the country despotically until 1997 and proved to be an utter embarrassment for the West, with his Mao suits, cult of personality and nepotism.
[* Congo’s independence ceremony was one of the most awkward episodes in modern diplomatic history. Belgian King Baudouin praised developments under colonialism, Belgium philanthropism in the Congo and the “genius” of Leopold II and glossed over atrocities committed during the Congo Free State. Patrice Lumumba’s rebuttal was vicious: “Slavery was imposed on us by force! We have known ironies and insults. We remember the blows that we had to submit to morning, noon and night because we were Negroes!” The King just sat there, deeply shocked and offended. Although Baudouin wanted to return to Brussels immediately, his ministers persuaded him to stay–a negotiation that delayed the official programme for an hour.]
Under the name ‘Mukti Bahini’ (Liberation Army), they were the important fighters for the Bangladesh Liberation movement in 1971. An effective guerrilla force, it was a symbolic rallying point for the Bengalis, albeit the independence of Bangladesh was secured primarily with the help of the Indian soldiers aiding the liberation movement. (India’s motive was to prevent 1 million refugees emigrating from East Bengal).
On 16 December 1971, the Pakistani army surrendered. It was the end of 9-month long war, but signalled the beginning of the Great Bengali Revenge. It began with the killing of Monaem Khan, a loyalist, anti-Bengali and ex-governor of East Pakistan in the capital Dacca. What happened next on December 18th was carefully recorded above. Three photos show Mukti Bahiti extracting revenge on the people who sided with Pakistan during the independence movement. After torturing them for hours, they bayoneted and executed these four men, who were suspected of collaborating with Pakistani militiamen who had been accused of murder, rape and looting. The last picture shows a relative of one of these four men being stomped to death by Mukti Bahini.
The controversy surrounding the photos were that many photographers deemed that the massacre would never have occurred if they (the photographers) were not there. It was as if they were invited to a ‘photo-opportunity’, many recalled. Many photographers, including Magnum’s Marc Riboud, UPI’s Peter Skingley, ITN’s Richard Linley, and Panos’ Penny Tweedie, left. They asked all others to join them, but others like the Observer’s Tony McGrath and the Daily Express’s William Lovelace deemed they have a duty to remain and tell the story. Two of those who stayed behind, Horst Faas and Michael Laurent of AP decided to pool their photos and shared the 1972 Pulitzer. Faas maintained that Skingley & co. left not because of some moral highground but because the rally was dragging on without anything much happening and it was getting dark.
The bayonetting photo became the iconic image of the East Bengal War along with Rashid Talukder’s photo of a mutilated head. In Delhi, the photos were received with shock: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian soldiers aiding the Bengal liberation to stop incidents like this.