In an earlier post I looked at Philip Jones Griffiths as an Engaged Observer. In this post I want to focus on how he uses text to strengthen the message of his photographs and to understand better why he chose to use such extensive text.
Vietnam Inc. is a anti-war narrative recoding the relationship between the American military machine and the Vietnamese people as the war moved through a series of phases until it became a remotely controlled and conducted conflict where American servicemen neither saw their enemy nor the people they thought of as their allies. To understand why the book was published as a combination of essays, captions, cutlines and pictures it is essential to look at the context of its publication.
In an interview with Bob Dannin in 2002 Philip Jones Griffiths talks extensively about Vitenam Inc. *(2). He reveals that he went to Vietnam with the idea of creating a book, he had a publishing contract already secured, although, in the end, the publisher in question “went bust” and he had to find a new outlet. The answer to why he wanted to publish a book rather than work as a news photographer lay in his deep mistrust of the news system. He believed that to work for remote editors and organisations meant that he could not tell the story he wanted to tell, by definition his photos would be published out of context, or worse be used in the context of someone else’s story.
It is interesting that he made two visits to Vietnam as part of developing Vietnam Inc. During his first visit he travelled extensively capturing every aspect he could of the Vietnam people. He then left Vietnam and returned to base to select and edit his photographs and to start creating a layout for his book. He did this to identify the gaps in his story and he then returned to Vietnam for a year to complete the narrative.
There are three levels of text in Vietnam Inc..
Firstly there are captions. These captions are longer than the headlines we normally associate with news photos. They usually run to approximately 40 words. Jones Griffiths says that, when he first became a journalist, he was taught that captions needed to contain the 5 W’s. These are:
Who? What? Why? Where? When?
Of these the middle one, “why”, is the most important. He saw little value in capturing a photo of “yet another starving child”, other than the message that there are too many starving children this offers very little because it is de-contextualised. The important question is why is this child starving? Who is depriving him of food? What is the history of this event? Jones Griffiths argues that this vital information cannot be communicated by pictures alone. The caption is a vital component of the story, the pictures and the words must be blended together, with the words supplementing the photographs. He makes the point that the role of this text is not to explain or describe the photograph, that would be redundant, but to provide the audience with context.
The second level of text is an extension of the first, Jones Griffiths’ includes what the American’s call cutlines, extended captions, in several places in the book. These are used in exactly the same way as his captions, they provide essential context but as well as being longer the context is usually broader providing more in-depth background on larger issues.
The third level of text is his eleven essays that each cover two or more pages and act as chapter introductions to his narrative. They are his own accounts and act as explanations of the background, occurrences and consequences of specific events or groups of events. They are subjective, opinionated and forceful.
Taken as a whole Vietnam Inc. is much more than a photo book and it is the partly the text that makes it so different. Jones Griffiths was an eloquent man, strongly opinionated, a thinker and a communicator who could not work within the constraints of news driven photo journalism. He recognised that many photographers, film makers and journalists in Vitenam were frustrated by the system that edited, selected and used their output out of its original context to meet the objectives of the news organisations. The difference between him and most of the other journalists was that he found a way of controlling the context in which his work was used.
Philip Jones Griffiths uses extensive text in Vietnam Inc. because the pictures were insufficient. He knew that his audience could only understand his photographs when they were contextualised. Collectively his three types of text provide the 5 W’s but the emphasis is unquestionably upon the “why”. It doesn’t pretend to be objective or unemotional and couldn’t be anything else because he is ultimately focusing on how a whole way of life was systematically dismantled by a foreign power who didn’t and never could understand the place or its people.
(1) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.
(2) Musarium – Interview with Philip Jones Griffiths by Bob Dannin in New York City, January 2002 – http://www.musarium.com/stories/vietnaminc/interview.html