I’m in Amsterdam, participating in the jury process for this year’s World Press Photo awards, probably the Premier awards in the field of photojournalism, drawing entries from something like 70 countries from around the world. In the course of the week, we go through some 100+ thousand images, in both singles and story categories (Daily Life, General News, Sports, etc. etc. see Worldpressphoto.NL for more info.) The days are long and incredibly tiring. I don’t know when the last time was that you looked at twenty thousand photographs in a single day. For me it was today. The startling thing is how attuned you can become to looking at pictures quickly, and separating the “keepers” from the “might have beens.” Of course it eventually becomes a somewhat subjective decision: photographic technique, esthetics, and news value, among other things, all come in to play. You try and balance things out so that the winning pictures which emerge at the end of a two week process are more than worthy. And in most cases the only reason a picture more remarkable didn’t win is that it’s author didn’t get around to entering the competition. World Press has been around for over fifty years, and seen its yearly celebration of news photography grow like a mad weed. I was on the jury in 1997, and chaired it (as I am now) in 1999, but compared to the sheer volume of imagery, it seemed at the time to be a bit more manageable. Additionally, the biggest change is that instead of sending prints or slides, which for years caused there to be ceiling high stacks of Carousel trays in every room, everything comes in digitally. In most cases the pictures are shot digitally, so the process is less encumbering than before. You merely edit your work, clean it up and send the files to Amsterdam.
All the entries are catalogued by a small battalion of what is probably the finest professional organization I have ever worked with. The staff is amazing: thoughtful, efficient, helpful and always breaking for a coffee when that umpteenth picture has finally caused your head to ache. The other jury members are a great mix from around the world – Dakar, Paris, Mexico City, Hamburg, and Seoul were my teammates in the first week. We all bring a particular sense of what photography is about for us, and what it should mean in the world at large. The decisions and conversations about photography are really wonderful, if occasionally bordering on the contentious. But more often than not, rather like the Continental Congress, open discussion and frank criticism leads to a final product of which we are all proud. I write this on day 5 of what is a 15 day process, so as of yet I have no clue what will win anything, though I have seen a lot of really great work. Inspiring, individual, thoughtful.
And it’s because I’m right in the middle of the judging process, or will be next Monday, that I won’t be able to attend another event which I would truly like to see. That afternoon, at the Maison Europeen de la Photo, a wonderful photo-centric space in Paris, a long overdue exhibition will open, honoring a photographer who is, sadly, probably unknown to young photogs now just learning the craft. Henri Huet, a soft spoken, totally dedicated French-Vietnamese who worked for years for Associated Press, will finally have his due. Henri was a great photographer, who covered the war in Vietnam for many years, and always brought to his work the eye of someone whose blood was of that soil. He was a staff photographer for the AP, and covered both the civil and military stories in Vietnam: sometimes they were the same. In 1966 he won a Robert Capa Gold Medal (Overseas Press Club of America) for his work of a US Army medic tending to the wounded. (Here is that work, in Digital Journalist.) Always ready to get back into action, he came back to Saigon from abroad in late January 1971 when it looked as if a big build up in I Corps (South Viet Nam) would mean something was being planned to interdict North Vietnamese supply traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail, just a few miles over the border into Laos. Thousands of South VN troops were ferried over the junglesque hills, in large part by US helicopters, to try and establish positions which would slow down the resupply traffic. In what was the first instance of an official US decision to try and control press access, the normally user-friendly American choppers (you could often just walk up to a crew chief, and if he was going where you wanted to go, he’d say “jump in”) started refusing to take Press over the border, and insisted that any Press jaunts be handled by the South Viet Namese Army. The VN Army was well equipped but for the most part much less trained and experienced than American chopper crews.
And so it was I found myself at a base camp near the Laotian border on the morning of February 10th, 1971, trying to secure a seat on a chopper which had been assigned to the press. I’d gone to Quang Tri (about 40 miles away) the day before to ship film, and had just returned, and thereby found myself at the back of a very small line. There were four news photographers, a reporter, and a Vietnamese Army photog all waiting for the first Press chopper to take them to the story. As they started to get aboard, I realized there would probably not be room, but that made no real sense to me, as I was working for TIME, and did absolutely NOT want to lose this scoop to the others there. They represented the main news organizations, Henri Huet of AP, Kent Potter of UPI, Larry Burrows from LIFE, and Keisaburo Shimamoto from Newsweek. Between them something like 35 years of experience in Viet Nam. So I kept trying to harangue the VN Army major who’d been tasked with taking care of the journalists. And the clearer it became that I might not get on that bird, the more worked up my pleas. Finally, as the engines began to whine, a reporter friend from TIME, Jon Larsen, came over and gave me some sage advice. “If you keep annoying that guy you’ll NEVER get to Laos. Why don’t you walk away, cool off, and come back later.” I did just that, still fuming over the situation. In one last look I saw them all settle into their webseats as the helicopter readied to take off and head west into the Laotian jungle.
Henri and DB, I Corps, 1971
It was less than an hour later, while walking by the VN command post, the same major who had kept me off the bird came outside and said in halting English, “ I think maybe your friends shoot down Laos.” And as I started to ask what he meant, he spun around and walked back inside. Moments later I ran into LIFE reporter John Saar. John was a few years older and infinitely more experienced in working in VN, and often worked with Larry, the icon whose photo reportages on Vietnam for LIFE were the definitive photographic work. I recounted to John what I’d just heard, and we both wondered what to do next, who to talk to in order to find out what the hell was really happening. As we started to walk, I saw in the distance Hal Ellithorpe, the LIFE stringer who I’d seen get on the chopper with Larry, and for a moment I was relieved.
“Boy, am I glad to see you,” I said to Hal. He asked why and I once again recounted what the major said. “But if you’re here, that means everyone is back safely.”
“Oh no,” Hal said. “I didn’t go. They did a hover test, the bird was too heavy, and Larry looked at me and said “LIFE’s a picture magazine… you can came later. I never left.”
And at that moment it all sunk in. They probably were lost. No one knew for sure just yet. But to get away from that moment, I left the area, and went off shooting for the rest of the day. That night I returned to Quang Tri, where the press briefing center was, and in a moment I’ll never forget, as I walked into the back of the briefing room, Brian Barron, a young silver haired BBC correspondent turned around to me and whispered… "have you heard, Larry Burrows has been shot down in Laos.” It didn’t then, and in many ways even now doesn't make sense to me. Seeing them one minute, they being "lost" the next. The calculations that war photographers go through carry a large basket of unknowns with them. You can try and figure what is and isn’t worth trying to do, what might or might not be a little TOO dangerous, but these are always done with false math. There is no formula. And if it might be safe for someone else to take a lonely stroll up Hiway 13 towards the sounds of battle, it won’t necessarily be that safe for you. We all try and make our guesses based on the best of what we know, and what we suppose could happen. But it’s not a science.
That day five very talented photographers died in a helicopter crash on a jungle hill top in Laos. Their lives, the stories they covered, the families they left behind would be forever changed by that one helicopter ride. A most moving and literate description of not only the day they disappeared but of the enormous effort launched by two journalists from AP – photographer Horst Faas and correspondent Richard Pyle – is contained in their book Lost Over Laos. It’s the kind of book young photographers of conflict would do well to read, but I suspect most don’t, figuring that nothing like this will ever happen to them. I suppose that is what we all think when we enter in zones of conflict be it the jungles of Vietnam or the streets, this week, of Cairo. Nothing is certain. Nothing is a given. You try and do your best work, and keep in mind that the whole point of journalism is sharing those pictures with others. The words, the pictures, they have to get out, they have to be reproduced somewhere for it all to matter. We have the newspapers and magazines (and a few websites) which still keep the work of those photographers alive for people to see. But there is something quite impressive about photographic prints, and so next week’s opening of the Huet show in Paris is a wonderful tribute to a helluva nice guy whose heart was in his pictures. I only knew Henri in passing. The week before the helicopter ride, most every journalist in Vietnam was buzzing around Khe Sanh, or Ham Nghe, looking for a way to scoop everyone else. No one succeeded, though in the hanging around, we did end up posing for a few “fourth estate” group shots near signs saying “No Press Pass This Point.” I’m not sure I ever really have thought of myself as a War Photographer, other than about six months in Viet Nam in the 2 years I lived there. That feeling kind of came and went. I guess I thought there might be something more I could offer in my pictures than work that would rival that of the steely nerved colleagues who truly knew what they were doing. Henri’s pictures, published in a beautiful book by his niece Helene Gedouin “I Was a War Photographer in Vietnam” shows that his work and his attitude were something special. There is much to learn from his photographs, so if you are anywhere near the Maison Europeen de la Photo next Monday, do yourself a favor. Drop in. Next Thursday the 10th will be the 40th Anniversary of that fateful helicopter ride. It will be the last day of the work of the World Press Jury, deciding what this year’s Press Photo of the Year will be. I’m already pleased to be able to actively participate in a process that helps keep photojournalism alive and well. But when I grab a drink that night, the first people I’m going to toast will include the talented and wonderful folks who rode that chopper on what they hoped, as journalists would be another chance to illustrate the first draft of history. Cheers, my friends. We’re just sayin’…. David