"Saigon Execution": The consequences of Eddie Adams Pulitzer Prize winning photography


Saigon Execution – Eddie Adams, 1st of February 1968. Published by Associated Press in the New York Times on the 2nd of February 1968

When the New York Times published Eddie Adams photograph “Saigon Exection”[1] it was in the wake of one of the most devastating losses that the United States had felt during the war to date, the Tet Offensive[2]. The protest movement was growing as transformation of the United States public opinion on Vietnam grew with increased media coverage[3]; Foner christened 1968 the “year of turmoil”[4]. Although Adams didn’t intend on creating the embodiment of the anti-war sentiment, his photograph is often cited as the turning point of public opinion in the United States[5]. The ramifications of the image, although immense for America as a nation, were also significant for Adams himself and General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan[6].

Eddie Adams joined the Associated Press photojournalism team in 1968. After a keen involvement with photography since High School, Adams served as a Marine combat photographer during the Korean War and continued to shoot for various publications up until his death in 2004[7]. Adams went to Vietnam three times during the conflict and it was on his third journey that he snapped his most infamous photo “Saigon Execution”. Adams claims he felt “nothing”[8] after taking the photo; he said “when I did the picture, I stopped back at the AP (Associated Press) office and I handed them this roll of film and I said ‘I think I got somebody killing somebody’ and I went out to lunch. It was that simple”[9]. The polarising photo is one of the most influential photos take during the Vietnam War[10] and won Adams a highly coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1969. Despite the acclaim that came with the award, Adams felt a certain lament due to the reactionary nature of the photo[11] and refused to speak about both the photo and the award for some time after. Adams never recognised the significance of the photo; “people were getting shot, you know, like they do in all wars”[12]. He thought of this incident as “just another day in Vietnam”[13] and wasn’t attempting to invoke the response the photo received.

The photo became “a symbol for everything that was going wrong with Vietnam”[14]. The American public began to ask why their sons were being sent to Vietnam if the South Vietnamese were capable of taking care of problems like these themselves. It painted a ruthless picture of the South Vietnamese; despite the many crimes of the man being executed[15] he gave the appearance of a helpless civilian and reinforced to the American public that they were participating in a war that perhaps they shouldn’t be[16].

Adams felt largely responsible for the repercussions for General Loan after the publication of the image. Adams leapt to his defence in later commentary of the image saying “How do you know you wouldn’t have pulled the trigger yourself?”[17] The man pictured had murdered the family of one of General Loans deputies just hours before, and was a known Viet Cong conspirator that had long been “undercover” in the South Vietnamese village. Adams said that after the execution General Loan walked over to him and said “they killed many of my people, and yours, too” and walked away[18]. Just three months after the photo was taken General Loan was injured by a gunshot, which resulted in the amputation of his right leg. He was taken to Australia for treatment, but upon recognition of the General from the photo, he was sent back to Vietnam. When Saigon fell to North Vietnam, General Loan pleaded with the American Government for assistance fleeing the country, but he was ignored. He eventually escaped with his wife to the United States, however, upon his detection, the US government moved to have him deported as a war criminal. He eventually settled in Northern Virginia where he opened a pizzeria, until, once again, his true identity was recognised and his business went bankrupt.[19] Adams considered himself responsible for ruining General Loans life[20]. An execution that was seen as a standard part of life in Vietnam was galvanised as all that was wrong with Vietnam and it haunted Loan and Adams until their deaths.

Adams carried guilt regarding Saigon Execution up until his death in 2004. Not only did he feel that it was the least significant photo he had ever taken; Adams said “When I see the picture, I wasn’t impressed. And I’m still not impressed”[21]; he credited it to the subsequent treatment of General Loan in Vietnam, Australia and the United States of America. In his interview with Donald Winslow, Adams states that his greatest achievement was his photo set entitled “Boat of No Smiles[22]” which documented Vietnamese refugees journey in boats from Vietnam to the US, in which Adams boarded the boats with the refugees, not knowing his own fate. This led to the US Congress granting entrance to 250,000 Vietnam “boat people” seeking asylum[23].

The Winslow Interview also paints a picture of the type of photographer Adams was and how the reverence of a photo that Adams didn’t mean to take affected him. His contempt for “reactionary photography”[24] grew after his Pulitzer Prize win for “Spot Photography” in 1969. He began to despise the photograph and the notoriety that came with it. The negative connotations and the personification of anti-war sentiment that came from the photo were too much for the ex-marine, and eventually he stopped discussing the photograph all together. In Winslows’ article he attests to this through the recollection of the phone call Adams made just prior to his death stating that he didn’t want the photo mentioned in his obituary or eulogy.

Despite the obvious adverse effects that this photo had on Eddie Adams mental health, its repercussion stretched far and wide. The publication of the photo on the front page of the New York Times gave fuel to the anti-war fire that was raging throughout the United States. His inability to distance himself from the photograph caused great amounts of stress on Adams throughout the rest of his life. This was mainly due to the consequences for General Loan, who was pictured in the photograph. The vulgar treatment of the General from many different nations was due to the photo that Adams had taken and he later felt responsibility to defend the Generals actions. Overall, this photograph has many times been cited as a turning point in the Vietnam War and continues to be the personification of the attitudes in late-sixties America.

[1]2nd of February 1968

[2] Jason, December 13 2011 “The Tet Offensive” Tet Offensive Blog, accessed August 30th 2013 from http://jason-tetoffensive.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/summary.html

[3] Brady Priest, Shayla Schneider, Marty Whited and Brian Coates, “The Effects of Photojournalism on the Protest Movement during the Vietnam War” Wellesley College, n.d, accessed August 7th 2013 from http://academics.wellesley.edu/Polisci/wj/Vietnam/ThreeImages/brady2.html

[4] Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! Volume Two (New York: Norton & Company Inc. 2012) 997-998

[5] Priest, et al “The Effects of Photojournalism”

[6] Donald R. Winslow, “The Pulitzer Prize Eddie Adams Didn’t Want” New York Times April 19, 2011, accessed August 7th 2013 http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/the-pulitzer-eddie-adams-didnt-want/?src=tptw&_r=2

[7] “Collections. Photojournalism: Eddie Adams” Briscoe Center for American History, accessed July 18th 2013, http://www.cah.utexas.edu/collections/photojournalists/adams.php

[8] YouTube “Pulitzer Prize 1968 commented on by its photographer, Eddie Adams” publisher unknown, uploaded by DocsOnline accessed August 30th 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cf5pJXr3gWQ

[9] YouTube “Pulitzer Prize 1968”

[10] “Collections. Photojournalism: Eddie Adams”

[11] Winslow, “The Pulitzer Prize Eddie Adams Didn’t Want”

[12] YouTube “Pulitzer Prize 1968”

[13] Winslow, “The Pulitzer Prize Eddie Adams Didn’t Want”

[14] Priest, et. al. “The Effects of Photojournalism”

[15] Jason Zasky, “Saigon Execution: The real story behind Eddie Adams’ iconic Vietnam War photo” Failure Magazine, n.d., accessed August 30th 2013 http://failuremag.com/feature/article/saigon_execution/

[16] Andy Grundberg, “Eddie Adams, Journalist who showed Violence of Vietnam, Dies at 71” New York Times, September 20th 2004, accessed August 7th 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/20/arts/20adam.html?_r=0

[17] Grundberg, “Eddie Adams, Journalist who showed Violence of Vietnam, Dies at 71”

[18] Horst Faas “The Saigon Execution” The Digital Journalist, October 2004, accessed August 30th 2013 from http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0410/faas.html

[19] Robert Thomas “Nguyen Ngoc Loan, 67, Dies; Executed Viet Cong Prisoner” New York Times, July 16th 1998, accessed August 30th 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/16/world/nguyen-ngoc-loan-67-dies-executed-viet-cong-prisoner.html

[20] Winslow, “The Pulitzer Prize Eddie Adams Didn’t Want”

[21] Lisa Kennedy “Through the lens, he captured the horrific and the sublime. An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story” The Denver Post, July 2nd 2009, accessed 30th August 2013 http://www.denverpost.com/headlines/ci_12735365

[22] For the most well-known photo from the “Boat with no smiles” photo set, please see http://www.artnet.com/ag/fineartdetail.asp?wid=425412081&gid=424079904

[23] Winslow, “The Pulitzer Prize Eddie Adams Didn’t Want”

[24] This is a photo that is not staged or set up. It takes little to no skill as it is purely a reaction to a feeling that something important is about to occur. Such as fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, Bob Jackson, who won the award for the photo of Jack Ruby lunging at Lee Harvey Oswald with a gun in 1963.

Bibliography

Cah.utexas.edu. “Eddie Adams – Photojournalism – Strengths – Collections – Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.” 2013. http://www.cah.utexas.edu/collections/photojournalists/adams.php (accessed 18 July 2013)

Faas, H., “The Saigon Execution” The Digital Journalist, October 2004. http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0410/faas.html (accessed August 30th 2013)

Foner, E., Give Me Liberty! Volume Two. New York: Norton & Company Inc., 2012

Grundenberg, A., ” Eddie Adams, Journalist who showed Violence of Vietnam, Dies at 71″ New York Times, September 20th 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/20/arts/20adam.html?_r=0 (accessed August 7th 2013)

Kennedy, L., “Through the lens, he captured the horrific and the sublime. An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story” The Denver Post, July 2nd 2009, http://www.denverpost.com/headlines/ci_12735365 (accessed 30th August 2013)

Priest, B., Schneider, S., Whited, M., & Coates, B. “The Effects of Photojournalism on the Protest Movement during the Vietnam War” Wellesley College, n.d. http://academics.wellesley.edu/Polisci/wj/Vietnam/ThreeImages/brady2.html (accessed August 7th 2013)

Tet Offensive Blog, The. http://jason-tetoffensive.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/summary.html (accessed 30th August 2013)

Thomas, R., “Nguyen Ngoc Loan, 67, Dies; Executed Viet Cong Prisoner” New York Times, July 16th 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/16/world/nguyen-ngoc-loan-67-dies-executed-viet-cong-prisoner.html (accessed August 30th 2013)

Winslow, Donald R.. “The Pulitzer Prize Eddie Adams Didn’t Want.” New York Times, April 19, 2011. http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/the-pulitzer-eddie-adams-didnt-want/?src=tptw&_r=2 (accessed 7 Aug 2013)

YouTube. “Pulitzer prize 1968 commented by its photographer, Eddie Adams.” 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cf5pJXr3gWQ (accessed 30 Aug 2013)

Zasky, J. “Saigon Execution: The real story behind Eddie Adams’ iconic Vietnam War Photo” Failure Maagzine, n.d. http://failuremag.com/feature/article/saigon_execution/ (Accessed August 30th 2013)


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