Front Lines

Philip Jones Griffiths: The Vietnam War from the U.S. Side

Words: Mark Edward Harris

Philip Jones Griffiths arrived in Vietnam in 1966, working for Magnum Photos. Few conveyed the fog and confusion of the conflict with more clarity than Griffiths, who passed away from cancer in 2008 at the age of 72. His controversial book, Vietnam Inc., first published in 1971, conveyed the absurdity of the war. It was the book equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark film Apocalypse Now, released in 1979, the difference being that every grain of Griffiths’ black-and-white film was shockingly real. With the re-release of Vietnam Inc. in 2001 by Phaidon Press, I talked with the New York-based Griffiths, tracing his roots from a peaceful Welsh countryside village to the steamy war-torn jungles of Southeast Asia.

*Your upbringing seems far removed from your eventual career choice. *
I come from a very small village where we all spoke Welsh and learned English in school. There was a feeling of being very isolated. I was conscious that every person I looked up to as a kid by age 18 left the village. You would hear, “Oh, yeah, he’s in Oxford now and he’s going to get a job in London for the BBC,” or “He’s going to be working for Barclay’s Bank.” The main export wasn’t Welsh lamb or wool, it was the youth of the village. But my parents came up with a brilliant solution to the problem.

They thought, “He spends all his time in a shed in the garden blowing things up, so maybe he wants to be a chemist.” I think they envisioned that one day I would be standing in the village outside the chemist’s shop with a white coat on saying “good morning” to everybody. I realized I didn’t want to do that, but it gave me the chance of going to study in Liverpool, which was a very exotic place at that time. One of the things that happens if you end up doing something that is inherently boring like counting pills…it can become a slap in the face: “My God, this could be for real if I don’t do something.” There’s only one thing that I’ve been afraid of in life, and that is boredom.

How did you transition from pharmacist to photographer?
I suppose one of the things about being a pharmacist is that you have a very analytical approach to life…you do things sensibly. Mostly because when you’re mixing a medicine for someone, if you don’t do it methodically, something horrible happens to him or her. When I graduated as a pharmacist I immediately got my very first job in Boots, the chemists in Piccadilly Circus in London, as night manager. But I dreamt, ate and read photography; it consumed my whole life. I took photographs during the day and slept on weekends…sometimes. Eventually I made enough money to make the transition to being a photographer.

Had you wanted to be a photographer growing up?
I’ve always had an innate sense of composition. I remember being slapped in chapel because I was fidgeting. But what I was actually doing, as the preacher was moving, was moving to keep the composition with the cross behind his head correct. I didn’t know what photography or composition meant.

I think the need to communicate using shapes or composition is something that was always with me. I think you can learn photography up to a certain point, but to do it instinctively, which is what you need to do to be a photographer, especially a photojournalist, you need to do it without thinking. It’s like changing gears on a car. If you think about it too much, you won’t be able to drive; you have to do it automatically. If you have to think about it you can still earn a living as a studio photographer and tell the assistant to move things around until they look good, but the problem is when you’re photographing real life it really sorts people out into those who can do it almost without thinking. An analogy would be a pianist who plays; there must be some point where you don’t look to see where your fingers are going, where you’re not reading the music in the sense of “I must do this, I must do that.” The music carries you, and you’re one with the music.

I’ve realized there has to be a relationship between the composition and the emotive power of what you’re looking at. It’s not enough just to make pretty compositions. One of the reasons George Rodger had a nervous breakdown after photographing Bergen-Belsen at the end of the Second World War is that he found himself making nice compositions of dead bodies. That problem is very real, because if you instinctively compose well you suddenly find yourself composing everything well, and certain things shouldn’t be composed well. Composition is a language, it’s not a rule. You use it to say what you want to say to guide the viewer down a certain road. I’m a photographer with an attitude, and I’m proud of that. The task is to use composition to help you say what you want to say.

Over the years you’ve used your cameras and your innate sense of composition to capture the horrors of war, especially the Vietnam conflict.
How do you photograph disgusting things like war without being disgusting? One of the ways I’ve very consciously tried to do it, for instance in my book on the Vietnam war, was to not publish any photos that were likely to make someone close the book. That is self-defeating. Just like if you say something so horrible to somebody that they put their fingers in their ears, then you’ve lost them. I was always looking for things that produce an emotional reaction. I want to make people cry. I don’t want to make them toss the book to one side. It becomes a kind of task. Have you touched people without offending them?

Your image of a G.I. with a Vietnamese woman and a child puts the viewer in the village with you.
One feels emotionally drawn to the dignity of the woman, the helplessness of the child, the arrogance of the soldier with his foot up. Not every picture is perfect, because I’m not directing a movie, I’m photographing real life. I’m trying to give the situation a spin, if you like. I’m trying to show it the way I felt about it, which is sympathy towards the civilians.

I was with a platoon on a typical “search and destroy” mission. They blew up anywhere where people could hide. Every house would have a little tunnel underneath. They rounded up all the people in the middle of the village and threatened them. I think they would have killed them then if I wasn’t there. They left the people in the village and withdrew to a hill three or four hundred yards away and called in an artillery strike and totally obliterated the village.

One of the more fascinating aspects of what happened in Vietnam was a strange sort of ambivalent attitude of both the Vietnamese toward the Americans and the Americans toward the Vietnamese. And at times you did see a sort of sympathy. I was with a small group of GIs way out in the Monsoon Mountains and they were interrogating villagers. This pale-faced boy who was maybe 14 was rounded up with his father, who was a farmer. He could have been Vietcong, but the idea of the boy being some sort of guerrilla fighter was not very likely.

So they start interrogating the kid, who is shaking. They’re not beating him up because I’m there — it was pretty obvious the way the sergeant was saying to the Vietnamese interpreter, “Take it easy, take it easy,” with a wink with his eyes toward me. “Okay, if you don’t tell us, we’ll kill your father.” They take the father, who is gagged and blindfolded, around the corner, and the kid is screaming. He’s totally prostrate with grief and he hears shots and is totally devastated. He’s beyond hysteria. He is totally out of it. Then the guy says, “No, he doesn’t know anything.”

So they say to the kid, “It’s okay, you’re all right now.” They bring the father around. They had fired into the air. “Okay, you can go home now.” And the kid doesn’t know where he is. Is he in heaven? Was he killed, too? Is this really his father? Then they felt sorry for the kid, so one of the GIs hands him some C-rations. The kid looked like his neurons had been blasted out of his head. You found a lot of that in Vietnam. “Should I give the kid some sweets or should I kill him?” Often things had to do with what had recently happened to them. If the platoon had just lost somebody, they could be very aggressive and cruel towards everyone. It was a very strange, surrealistic world.

How have you maintained your sanity and kept a balanced outlook on life despite having witnessed such incredible horror?
I’m not an optimist or a pessimist, I’m a realist. Why aren’t I 95 pounds, with an Adam’s apple the size of a football, spittle on my chin, great bulging eyes and a big twitch? I’ve often wondered myself. Well, there are certain clues. Unlike some photographers, I don’t get off on violence, I don’t get off on war. I’ve seen colleagues who, when machine gunners open fire they become a Nureyev, they dance around like a ballet dancer with glistening eyes and dry mouths. That does not happen to me. My niece asked, “You saw so many terrible things, did you cry a lot?” Well, no.

If you cry, it’s a problem, you can’t focus. Probably if I had automatic-focusing cameras I would have cried a lot more. I told her, “When I was there, I was like a surgeon. A surgeon is no good if they faint at the sight of blood. A photographer is no good if he cries.” She asked, “Didn’t you feel sad?” I responded, “Yeah, but the trick is to get the sadness in the pictures. That’s my job.” If you have a job, a sense of purpose, you can do anything in life. If you have a task to do, it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get a bullet through the head or step on a mine, but it certainly concentrates the mind on an objective, and once you’ve got an objective you’ve got a good chance of reaching it. If you have no objective you can end up wandering around from one marijuana plant to another, as did happen a lot in Vietnam.

I was there because I had to know what was going on. As my parents or my schoolteachers would have told you, I was a pain in the ass because I was always asking “why?” 1,000 times an hour. I wanted to understand in my brain what was going on. I was in Vietnam altogether three years. Had Vietnam been a very simple conflict to analyze and come to grips with, I might not have stayed as long as I did.

Your images of Vietnam are a good example of how photojournalists have to get right in the middle of whatever they’re attempting to record.
The thing that separates photography from any other art form is that you can only practice it by doing it and doing it by being there. You can’t be on a safe ridgeline, you have to be in the middle of the battle. That applies if you’re doing a story on war or doing a story about teenagers in Hollywood or on the potato growers of Ireland. What does that mean? You’re likely to be an eyewitness to history — that’s a very privileged point of view. Then we let the world know what we see. Very few people get to be in that position.

Fact File
Our thanks to Magnum Photos and Phaidon. The new edition of Vietnam, Inc. by Philip Jones Griffiths, with a foreward by Noam Chomsky, is available in paperback for $35 USD/£19.95. Phaidon 2006. Please visit

Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3 Photo 4 Photo 5 Photo 6 Photo 7 Photo 8 Photo 9
GI with child. Vietnam, 1967. © Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos