One of the greatest modern-day photojournalists talks about his career, his new book, Vietnam At Peace, and the country he has been photographing for 40 years. Exclusive profile by Peter Howe.
A s he stepped on to Vietnamese soil for the first time in 1966, Philip Jones Griffiths was reminded of his roots in a small village in rural Wales. It wasn’t the the jungles and rice paddies that were familiar to him; rather, it was the Vietnamese themselves. In them, he saw the Welsh neighbors of his childhood-resourceful, observant people living in a network of small, tight communities where everyone knew everything that was going on. Vietnam’s climate, so dissimilar to the damp, Celtic land of his youth, also had an immediate appeal for him. He claims to have no hairs on the back of his legs, the result of spending the cold Welsh winters in short trousers too close to his home’s inadequate coal fire. Vietnam’s warm, moist tropical air seduced him into a love that remains to this day.

Photo: Philip Jones Griffith. All Rights Reserved.

Growing up in a relatively isolated environment was a major factor in Jones Griffiths’s choice of career. The insularity of his village fostered a curiosity about the world outside, and from a young age he was an eager devourer of Picture Post, the British equivalent of Life. This publication, a collection of bric-a-brac belonging to an aunt who had made an overland trip from South Africa, a shortwave radio, plus a lifelong fear of boredom made him yearn to visit those places that he had only read or heard about. It seemed to him that his Box Brownie was the ticket out. His parents had other plans, however. They felt that a life in pharmacy would be equally rewarding and more secure; Jones Griffiths he took the line of least resistance and headed to Liverpool to study the profession.

Photo: Philip Jones Griffith. All Rights Reserved.

He qualified as a pharmacist and spent three years working the night shift at Boots the Chemist in Piccadilly Circus in London. It was the photography he was doing during the day that was becoming increasingly important in his life. By 1961 he was making enough of a living at it to quit the pharmacy. He learned to shoot color because that is what the new Sunday supplements to the London Sunday Times and the London Observer wanted. The intense competition between the two publications meant that there was plenty of work for any photographer capable of correctly exposing Kodachrome. Although he was grateful for the assignments, he was never comfortable with color for the kind of work that he was interested in doing. In a recent interview he explained why: “Color fights you the whole time. Not in the studio, not if you’re shooting a movie, a fiction film. Then of course there’s no problem. But when you’re doing reality and you’re doing dying, starving people, with all these red and blue buckets from the UN in the picture it looks like Coney Island. Color destroys so much.”
Growing up in a relatively isolated environment was a major factor in Jones Griffiths’s choice of career.

He also became aware that he was trapped on the “parachute journalism” treadmill. In 1964 alone he visited forty countries, some of which he remembers only vaguely. He realized that “you can be very thin, spread very wide, or you can try to narrow it down and go deep. Without even knowing it, without articulating it in my brain, I was looking for something that I could get deeply involved in. It didn’t take a genius to work out where to go in 1966.” Thus he stepped off the plane into the warm air to begin his deep involvement with Vietnam, and especially the Vietnamese, that has lasted for almost 40 years.

Although the first American military advisors went to Vietnam in 1954, by the time that Philip landed in the country it was still relatively early in the major American involvement in that country. The first official contingent of American combat troops arrived shortly after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election victory in November 1964. When Jones Griffiths arrived it was still relatively easy to get around South Vietnam. “Back in 1966 there was no animosity towards the press,” Jones Griffiths says. “It was very easy. You got your paperwork in order; you were given a card, which explained that you could get on and off helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. You were treated seriously. You had the rank of major. As somebody said, ‘the only people they can bump you off for are Westmoreland or the wounded.'” Jones Griffiths traveled to every province in South, and two things became immediately apparent: First, that there was a huge cultural divide between the Americans and the Vietnamese that would define the progress of the war.

Photo: Philip Jones Griffith. All Rights Reserved.

The second thing that struck him was the imperialistic attitude of the Americans towards the local inhabitants. “They weren’t as bad as the French; they didn’t call them savages or yellow or things like that, but they certainly looked down on the Vietnamese. I got so tired of watching Americans hugging a Vietnamese saying, ‘Well, little Dai We here is a real go-getter. His mother and father were killed by the Cong, and now he kicks Cong ass. (Watch out Phil, he’s a bit light handed. Don’t leave anything valuable lying around.)’ And then I would talk to the Vietnamese, and he would say, ‘I studied philosophy at the Sorbonne for three years.'” Jones Griffiths also realized at this stage that there were two options open to him as a photographer. He could join the Associated Press and try to get his pictures on the front page of the New York Times every day, or he could stick with Magnum and produce stories with more depth and a longer shelf life. Fortunately, he chose the latter course and committed himself to producing a book from his experience of the conflict.

At the outset, assignments were difficult to come by. For a year he lived off the sale of one of the two-and-a-half airline tickets from London to Saigon that he had been able to get as advances from magazines in Britain before leaving for Asia. However, as time went on he often had to choose between a bowl of Vietnamese soup and a roll of Tri-X, both of which cost about a dollar. Rescue came in an unlikely form-that of Jacqueline Kennedy, who was paying a visit to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia in the company of a British aristocrat named Lord Harlech, with whom she had been romantically linked. Jones Griffiths took exclusives of the couple, and the proceeds allowed him to stay on in Saigon.
At the outset, assignments were difficult to come by.

It is remarkable that three of the photographers who produced some of the defining work during the Vietnam conflict were British-Don McCullin, Larry Burrows, and Jones Griffiths himself. Of the three, Jones Griffiths spent the most time in the country and probably understood its people best. His depth of knowledge distinguished his book Vietnam Inc., a seminal photographic collection from the Vietnam War and one of the finest photography books ever printed. Still as potent today in its recently reprinted form, the book is less a collection of war photos than a portrait of a country suffering the ravages of war.

Jones Griffiths says he is not a war photographer: “I just happened to photograph a war, and if anyone wants any proof as to the fact that I’m not a war photographer-guess what, I’ve been back to Vietnam 26 times since the war ended. War photographers don’t go back to countries once the war’s over; they go on to another war.” In fact he finds the country that he so clearly loves more difficult to fathom in times of peace than war. For the first few years after the fall of Saigon in 1975 it seemed to him that the Vietnamese were constructing a better society, and one of which they could be proud. But as the result of the trade embargo against them and the collapse of their patron, the Soviet Union, they were forced to throw in their lot with the World Trade Organization. One of the results of this is that today in Vietnam, the second biggest rice exporter in the world, a third of the population is malnourished, and children are dying of beriberi. American-based businesses also took hold, resulting in a curious revision of the official history of the war. The word from the Politburo was that the American people weren’t the enemy; the real enemies were the aggressors in Washington who made the American people do terrible things.

Photo: Philip Jones Griffith. All Rights Reserved.

At the same time, a recent survey of young people conducted by a Vietnamese magazine found that the majority placed Ho Chi Min second to Bill Gates as the most famous person in the world.
Jones Griffiths’s new book, Vietnam at Peace, springs from his need to understand what he experienced during those 26 postwar visits. He finds a dichotomy forming between a people trying to embrace consumerism while coming to terms with their recent history. He is aware of a revival of interest in the war by a generation of Vietnamese too young to have experienced it for themselves, an interest aided by the Internet. “The Vietnamese now are beginning to understand what their country went through,” he observes, “and for the first time in the last three or four years you see teenagers, people in their early 20s, at the museums making notes. Now in the coffee houses of Hanoi they’re discussing the war. I’m never alone in Hanoi; they all want to talk to me, they want to ask me questions. I’m constantly being approached with explanations as to what happened in the war-‘Hey you were there, tell us is this true, or is that true?'”

At the same time, a recent survey of young people conducted by a Vietnamese magazine found that the majority placed Ho Chi Min second to Bill Gates as the most famous person in the world. (The police closed the magazine down shortly after this revelation.) In Ho Chi Min City, which many people still call Saigon, the old earthen-floor shops have been replaced with stores that would not look out of place on Rodeo Drive. Such stores are for the pleasure of wealthy tourists; as Jones Griffiths points out, around 80 percent of the population still lives in the countryside. “They are still doing what they have always done. They bury their ancestors in the rice fields so their spirit will pass into the rice so that when the family eats the rice they eat the spirit and the spirit lives forever.”

Photo: Philip Jones Griffith. All Rights Reserved.

When you talk to Jones Griffiths, his affection for and admiration of the Vietnamese people is palpable. He loves their intelligence and ingenuity. “Give them a pile of buffalo dung and two chopsticks and they’ll make shortwave radio. They can do anything.” For all the changes that have happened, and for all of the challenges that have still to be overcome, the photographer retains a fundamental belief in the strength and endurance of the Vietnamese people. “The Vietnamese-well, they’ve surprised me all my life, and I’m hoping they’re going to surprise me again.” If they do, the chances are that he will record their efforts, for like them he is a survivor-of combat, of cancer, and, he will claim, of being a member of Magnum for 40 years. His life and work are inspirations for young photojournalists. As he says, “I have enjoyed every minute of my career; I would have done nothing else. I can think of no better way of spending one’s three score years and ten than being a photographer.”