Diên Biên Phu | Daniel Camus


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.


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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.

Dickey Chapelle, the Lotus Eater

Why photojournalists play only marginal roles in fiction is a question that throughly troubles me. I, for one, believe they live more interesting lives than lawyers, academics or scientists, who are constant staples in books. (Full disclaimer: I don’t read ‘novels’ with a shirtless man on their covers, I don’t know whether muscular photographers play an important and steamy role with their nymphette models in these boudoir novels). So it was with mild astonishment that I opened a gift book last week and discovered a photojournalist as the protagonist. The novel was “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli, the title being a not-too-subtle reference to an island-dwelling race in “The Odyssey” who eat the opiate fruit of lotus and share it to those who wash ashore, so they won’t want to leave.

The protagonist is Helen Adams, a young photographer from California who starts out as a freelancer and eventually gets a job with Life magazine. In between, she goes to Vietnam, sees all the horrors of war, falls in love with a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Sam Darrow, losses him to the war, takes an iconic photograph, and marries her Vietnamese assistant. By describing Helen’s transformative experience, Soli was comparing addictiveness of war reporting to that of the lotus flower: many journalists who experience the horrors of war ironically refused to go back to their mundane jobs and remained the chroniclers of war, pestilence and famine.

The models for Soli’s characters were real photojournalists of the Vietnam era: Larry Burrows, Sean Flynn, Henri Huet and Catherine Leroy. Even Helen’s last name and iconic photograph she takes, that of a sudden execution of a harmless-looking old man, seems directly borrowed from another famous Vietnam photographer: Eddie Adams. But Helen Adams was clearly based on another photographer, who briefly but spendidly reported on the Vietnam War in the conflict’s early days: Dickey Chapelle.

Dickey Chapelle covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa for National Geographic, was captured and jailed for seven weeks covering the Hungarian uprising for Life. In the meantime, she learned to fly an airplane and jump with paratroopers. She arrived in Vietnam in the early ’60s, and described her early experiences in her 1962 book “What’s a Woman Doing Here?” On November 4, 1965, when on patrol with a Marine platoon, the soldier in front of Chapelle activated a boobytrap (a mortar shell with a hand grenade). The explosion hurled Chapelle off her feet, and a piece of shrapnel slit her carotid artery, wounding her mortally.

The Associated Press photographer Henri Huet took a photograph of Chapelle as she lay dying, a picture that captured the same life-and-death drama that she herself reported before. In Huet’s photo, Marine Corps chaplain John Monamara administers the last rites to Chapelle, as an American Marine and a South Vietnamese soldier, both carrying M-14 rifles, look on. Blood puddles in the dirt near her head; from her left earlobe, a small pearl earring glistens. The Australian bush hat, which is her signature as much as her pearl earrings are, lies nearby, complete with a tiny bouquet of pink flowers she tucked in its band earlier.

Vietnam proved to be an extremely dangerous war for the journalists. Huet himself would later die in the same helicopter crash that killed Larry Burrows. But Chapelle’s death had a special meaning to it, not least because of the above haunting photograph. Chapelle was the first female war correspondent to be killed in Vietnam, as well as the first American female reporter to be killed in action. Chapelle was so admired by the Marines with which she was embedded that her body was repatriated with an honor guard of six Marines and was given full Marine burial. One of the eulogies read: “”the kind of reporter all women in journalism openly or secretly aspire to be. She was always where the action was.”

Crime and Punishment

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.”

The Blunt Reality of War in Vietnam


It was perhaps the most controversial cover for LIFE magazine, which usually steered clear of controversy. Paul Schutzers captured this image of a VietCong prisoner gagged and bound, being taken prisoner by American forces during the Vietnam War. Photography and news coverage like this helped to turn the American public against the Vietnam war.

Schutzer, one of LIFE’s best photographers, worked frequently in the Middle East during his short career and there he would perish too: he was killed on assignment on June 5, 1967, the first day of the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbouring states of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

The Immolation of Quang Duc


In 1963, after suppressing internal revolts, President of South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem was widely seen as a totalitarian. Though he depended largely on US aid, Diem refused to be counselled by them on his handling of the war, which was leading to genocide. In June, Buddhists revolted at Hué and Saigon, which Roman Catholic Diem used military force to disperse.

On the 21st, the monks showed their anger by a rally in Saigon. A 73-year old Thich Quang Duc sat crossed legged in the centre of a human circle. A monk poured gasoline on him. With a look of serenity, Quang Duc struck a match at 9:22 AM. As flames engulfed his body, he made not a single cry or a muscle. In his will he wrote to President asking him to be kind and tolerant towards his people.

Journalist Malcolm Browne’s photographs of his self-immolation were seen on the front pages of newspapers worldwide — except on the New York Times, whose editors deemed the photos too graphic to be put on the front page. John F. Kennedy noted that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one”. One won the 1963 World Press Photo of the Year. Although Diem’s decline and downfall had already begun, the self-immolation is widely seen as the pivotal point. Diem was later assassinated. After Diem’s death, America tried to influence their puppet leaders entirely – they could not risk another Diem – thus plunging the entire region into disaster.

The Execution of A Vietcong Guerilla


Feb 1, 1968. There were a lot of pictures taken during the Vietnam War-those of burning monks, fallen soldiers and whirling helicopters. But this picture by Eddie Adams is the one that defined the conflict and changed history. In the sharp contrast with Capa’s Falling Solider, personalities and identities did matter a lot in this picture. Amazingly, the picture that polarized the American public and shown the personal nature of the Vietnam War did not involved any Americans. It was the gunshot heard all over the world; Italian photographer and designer Oliviero Toscani compared it to Caravaggio’s 1598 painting, “Judith Beheading Holofernes.”

It is almost dehumanizing to personally witness the execution, no matter what the victim had done. It mattered a little that the person about to be executed was a Viet Cong Guerrilla named Bay Hop responsible for killing twelve only that fateful morning. It matter a little that his group of guerillas had slaughtered the family of his executioner’s best friend in a house just up the road. America–a nation that still supports death penalty by overwhelming numbers (for various reasons)–was shocked to its core.  In the picture, its framing, its lighting and its depth mattered little. For instance, picture was cropped again and again just to display the general and his victim. However, the act, ‘the thing itself’ spoke directly–the general is the personification of America’s hidden hand and her dirty involvement in the Vietnam Quagmire. The fact that the executioner was American-educated and trained Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan (then South Vietnam’s National Chief of Police) did not help either.

In Adams’s photograph, we see Loan firing a bullet point blank into Hop’s head; Hop, wincing, appears to be receiving the bullet. Ironically enough, it has been argued that Ngoc Loan was only interested in publicly assassinating the Viet Cong prisoner because there were AP press corps there to capture the image. For him, the photographic evidence of the execution was meant to teach the Vietcong what would happen to their forces if caught.

The photograph was published on the front page of the New York Times and, along with the NBC film of the same event, is credited with having provoked the civilian outrage that lead to massive demonstrations against the war. Although the above photo was not as graphically violent an ending as shown by the television footage of the same incident, for many viewers, the picture was a climactic moment, proclaiming the horror and immorality of the war, signifying its barbarity and its incoherence. Within two months, President Johnson would be announcing his desire not to pursue a second term.


Adams remembered: “”He was a small barefooted man in civilian clothes with his hands tied behind his back. I ran up just to be close by in case something happened.”