Philip Jones Griffiths – An Engaged Observer

Bringing Home the Spoils from a Manila Rubbish Dump 1990

Bringing Home the Spoils from a Manila Rubbish Dump 1990

My research on narrative has generated many disparate leads so I’ve decided to document my research on individual photographers and narrative series before trying to summarise my overall thoughts in a later post.

This post, to use Stuart Freedman’s *(1) phrase, is about “photo journalism as a mechanism for story telling” and about a photographer, Philip Jones Griffiths, who the Getty Museum included in a group of what they called Engaged Observers *(2) and who Magnum would call Concerned Photographers. The Getty grouping is a little arbitrary but the work of these practitioners is part of a common thread that runs through contemporary narrative photography that is initially captured or subsequently published in the context of photo journalism. These photographers have identified so closely with their subjects, become so totally absorbed in their projects and become so involved with the narrative that they have become part of the story they set out to tell. The Getty Museum also included W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M Smith in the same grouping but I have already discussed their work in WW2 to Minamato.

Harold Evans *(3) argues that a picture or photo essay is not confined to a single event or even by time, it addresses a broad subject and argues and analyses more than it narrates. It sets out to make a point. I have selected Jones Griffiths and the Smiths because each have produced at least one major work that sets out to fundamentally change the view about an important subject. Maria Short, in Context and Narrative *(4), quotes Karin Becker Ohrn as defining documentary photography in Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition as:

“The Photographer’s goal was to bring the attention of the audience to the subject of his or her work and, in many cases, to pave the way for social change.”

This definition would have found favour with Philip Jones Griffiths who believed that his role as a concerned photographer and photo journalist was to “draw attention” *(5). Whilst holding the Presidency of Magnum in the 1980s he promoted the philosophy that, because of the institutional status the agency enjoyed, it had a responsibility not to give people what they wanted to see, but what the Magnum photographers wanted them to see. He believed that Magnum had survived because its photo journalists had something to say and who said it with independence and integrity *(5). But nearing the end of his life in 2008 he was deeply concerned that Magnum and the world of photo journalism in general was “dumbing down” partly because the audience was swamped with so many images from every imaginable source that the powerful and important images were losing their effect and partly because professional photographers had become “addicted to triviality”. This later quote might have been specifically directed at Martin Parr whose membership of Magnum he bitterly opposed.

This question of whether photo journalism and documentary photography has been dumbed down is a theme picked up by Stuart Freedman *(1). His concern is that too many photo journalists are “shooting visual clichés of suffering because it sells and advances their careers.” He finds common ground with the Jones Griffiths’ philosophy when he argues that the true photo journalist must look at the stories that they want to make not the stories that editors ask for otherwise they are merely providing pictures for someone else’s stories. So, we can establish one clear attribute of photo journalism, at least in the eyes of these two recognised practitioners, the photo journalist is telling the story not illustrating it.

Freedman discusses a second attribute that David Campbell quotes Tod Pappageorge summarising as:

“if your photographs aren’t good enough you aren”t reading enough” *(6).

This speaks of the photographer’s depth of understanding. The argument that superficial research leads to superficial photographs and that to tell a story the photographer must have acquired or developed an intimate understanding of their subject. Many established photo journalists express their concern that too many young photographers are chasing blockbuster, award winning, single images before quickly moving on to their next subject. Freedman calls for story telling to be “as rigourous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution” *(1) and, whilst he said this in the context of photo journalism, it is equally relevant to documentary photography and any other form of serious narrative.

As discussed elsewhere the power of Julian Germain’s For Every Minute you are Angry you lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness lies in his total engagement with the subject. In that instance his deep knowledge came from investing time over many years because he enjoyed his subject’s company and not because he saw him as a project. Josef Koudelka’s Wall is moving because, having been born in a place that ended up behind the Iron Curtain, he instinctively understands the emotional impact of arbitrarily imposing a divisive structure on a landscape. As I will come onto discussing, Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. is considered to be one of the most important books about that war or war in general because he went native and left many other war photographers in the bars of Saigon waiting for the next US Army briefing. He became engaged with the Vietnamese people whom he saw had much in common with the Welsh and through this engagement over an extended period of time he grew to understand them and felt empowered to tell their story. Robert Capa said “Like the people you shoot and let them know it”.

This can all be summarised by saying great documentary or journalistic narrative has three key attributes:

  • The photo journalist is telling a story that they believe is worth telling;
  • The story will be based on an in-depth understanding of the subject;
  • It will be beautiful in construction and execution.

These principles set a high standard to aspire to but Philip Jones Griffiths, whose work is discussed below, has been part of the history of the concerned photography movement that set the bar at this olympic height. However, by focussing on the greats of the industry there is a risk that we measure the importance of a story on a national or global scale and this would be a mistake. Julian Germain in Sixty Seconds and more recently in Classroom Portraits, Richard Billingham in Ray’s a Laugh, Martin Parr in The Last Resort and Think of England all show that powerful and important narrative can be created close to, or even in the, home.

Philip Jones Griffiths – Vietnam Inc.

In 1966 Philip Jones Griffiths decided to focus all his energy on a single grand project; in an interview for Photo Histories * (5) he said that he more or less decided that he needed to “get passionate” about something. The something was the Vietnam war and the end result was Vietnam Inc. The project took three years of in-country journalism in which time Jones Griffiths moved further and further away from reporting the war as the Americans with white hats defending democracy from the evil of communism. This meant that Magnum could not sell his photographs to the American media but, once published in Vietnam Inc., they became an important factor in changing opinions both at home in the USA and abroad. In its obituary for Jones Griffiths The Independent newspaper *(7) is one of many reviews to describe Vietnam Inc. as the single most important book about the Vietnam War, the most important photo book of the 1970s and goes on to argue that its publication changed photo journalism for ever.

The significant change was that it placed the photographer’s own experiences at the centre of the story, the photographs are highly subjective because of his choice of subject, he is expressing his own anguish by concentrating on the impact of the war on, not just on the Vietnamese but also on the young American soldiers who seem to be blundering around in an alien land fighting people and a political system they don’t understand and defending an American backed regime that is equally complex and baffling.

This book is a broad, sweeping narrative with many sub-themes within its overriding anti-war message. Jones Griffiths sent pithy and acerbic captions back to Magnum along with his photos and together they create a complex and detailed narrative of the war. Even now, nearly 40 years after the war ended, it is easy to understand why this book changed attitudes in America because it humanises the conflict. We are introduced to rural Vietnam, to pretty women farmers, children with the family buffalo (South East Asia’s tractor), families in their homes, fishermen on their boats, but these images of a rural idyll are punctuated with photos of shell holes and dead Vietcong. The American military is shown imposed on the landscape, heavily laden soldiers wading past farmers in their paddy fields, strangers in a strange land. We see  homesick, American soldiers holding Vietnamese children and talking to villagers but we are made aware that the context was not wholly philanthropical and often part of an attempt to Americanise the locals by introducing them to Disney films, toilet seats and filter tipped cigarettes.

I expected to see dark photos, similar perhaps to Josef Koudelka or Don McCullin, but Jones Griffiths has given us beautifully composed, bright prints to the extent that some could be taken out of context and used in a black and white Lonely Planet travel guide. He presumably didn’t feel that he had to hammer home the message with dark gritty images, he used all his artistic flair to present us with the beauty of the land and its people, the handsome young marines and the ugly scars and terrible effects of war. Jones Griffiths was a political being and this is a political book, he wants us to be shocked and to question what are we seeing and why is it happening ? How can an American marine point his automatic rifle at a mother holding her beautiful baby who is staring at the camera with solemn eyes like a miniature Chinese Emperor? What chain of events led the marine to this village and how had he reached the point where he could casually allow his gun to point at these people in front of a British journalist. Even though his stance is non aggressive I found this casual disregard for basic firearms safety as deeply concerning as the more horrific pictures because it talks of the man’s state of mind where things he could not image doing in Missouri or California or on the firing range are acceptable behaviour in Vietnam.

Phillip Jones Griffiths made no secret of his views and his captions are often highly loaded and critical. After its publication he talked extensively about his motives and the misguided policies of the American Government. He wanted the Americans to ask why their politicians thought it made sense to fight alongside people whose motives, culture and language they didn’t understand against an enemy who was equally enigmatic in an alien landscape on the other side of the world. This message is the overriding theme of the photographs, in simple terms, what are we doing here?

I chose Philip Jones Griffiths as an example of the engaged observer or concerned photographer for a number of reasons. Firstly because, as I said in my introduction, he became part of the story he was telling, secondly because Vietnam Inc. is the very definition of making photographs with the intent of achieving social or political change and lastly because although he is best remembered for his grand project he showed in his work on the Philippines *(9) and many other places that his empathy with distressed people came from his deeply held personal convictions and not because he could spot a global headline.

Sources

Books

(3) Evans, Harold. (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(4) Short, Maria. (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVa Publishing.

(8) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.

Internet

(1) Freedman, Stuart. (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism – http://www.epuk.org/The-Curve/952/ethics-and-photojournalism

(2) Getty Museum – Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties, Photographic Essays – http://www.getty.edu/news/press/engaged_observers/photographic_essays.pdf

(5) Photo Histories (August 2014) – Philip Jones Griffiths – http://www.photohistories.com/interviews/23/philip-jones-griffiths

(6) Campbell, David. (2010) Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story? – http://www.david-campbell.org/2010/11/18/photography-and-narrative/

(7) The Independent (March 2008 ) Philip Jones Griffiths: Photographer whose Vietnam images changed photojournalism – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/philip-jones-griffiths-photographer-whose-vietnam-images-changed-photojournalism-799333.html

(9) Jones Griffiths, Philip – Garbage dump in the Philippines.1996 – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYDYUP9O7

(8) Jones. Griffiths, Philip – Magnum – https://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K7O3RP3N9U

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s