by: Sean McKeag
Phillip Jones Griffiths, a Welsh-born photojournalist, traveled across Europe to document war between various opposing countries; his travels led him to Asia when the U.S. invaded South Vietnam where he intended to do the same. The U.S. invasion was fueled from the idea that capitalism must prevail over any other political ideologies, thus preventing communism from spreading any further. Jones said his goal was “…to observed the full force of American hegemony over a small country on the opposite side of the planet.” The “small country” Griffiths referred to was South Vietnam. His intention was not to show the actual fighting in the war per se, such as the majority of photojournalists were there to do, but to witness and capture on film the terrible suffering war can inflict on the people involved in it; soldiers and civilians alike. Griffiths sympathized with the Vietnamese people because he saw war in general as unnecessary, and the Vietnam War he thought especially, was unjust. The Vietnamese people who died were only statistics on a government chart; only numbers to the corporate-run media, therefore that’s exactly how most of the world had thought of them. However, Griffiths thought differently, and gave them an identity by focusing on their life and culture. He was the voice of the South Vietnamese people when they wouldn’t be heard otherwise. In a book titled Vietnam Inc., Griffiths expressed his anti-war sentiments and compiled many photographs he had taken while observing the war in Vietnam, however, one image was powerful in particular. The photo was critiqued by the material it depicted, the meaning behind it, and the technical aspects that were involved in creating it.
In the photograph, a shadow of a person stood on the left, suggestive of an American soldier from the outline of a helmet shown on his head. The length of the shadow was long, illustrating that it must have been early morning or late evening, depending on the geographical direction he was facing. While that direction is unknown, it was quite apparent that he was opposing a dead Vietcong soldier; a soldier trained in guerrilla warfare whose face looked up toward the sky, lied with his back on the ground where others before him died or felt the casualties of war. He was discovered by the American soldier’s movement of his machete that was most likely used to hack away the thick brush from the place where the guerilla found a place of escape. The machete remained partially hidden in the shadow of its user. The face was the only visible part of the dead man; the rest of his body from the neck down was hidden beneath the harsh shadows of trees. His mouth was stuck open when he died as if he was shouting or more appropriately, saying a prayer. The guerilla fighter might have thrown a grenade, killing or wounding soldiers from an American platoon, and finally met his match. If that was true, the American soldier killed him not in defense of his own life, but for the purpose of avenging the death of his peers. The dominant shadow of the American soldier held a sharp object, such as a knife that was used for close-quarter combat or as a way to surprise his enemy from behind. The hunched position showed he walked with quiet steps, used stealth as a way to keep from being detected by other guerilla fighters, and was careful to execute the enemy. Directly beside the shadowy outline of the helmet, a dirty pistol sat; a pistol that had felt many hands, stared at many faces, and was used for the purpose of battle, now just lied silently in the dirt. The clip of the gun was emptied from it, therefore stripping it from the only identity it has ever understood. It could have been thrown aside intentionally as a conscious effort to get rid of the guilt from the one that used it, or it was simply dropped accidentally.
The shadow of the American soldier played the dominant role in the photograph. It was the main focus and proved to be a great addition for Griffiths’s message of how enormous America’s presence was in South Vietnam. The shadow kept the American soldier from his personal identity, but the obvious outline of his helmet was enough to show his group recognition. The body of the guerilla fighter remained invisible through the shadows of trees, but the bright rays from the sun reached his face to make him identifiable to those who knew him. Griffiths chose to show the identity of him, but left the individual identity of the American soldier in secret.. It was partly Griffiths’s goal to have caught such a moment, and to share with the people, mainly the American public what the media didn’t want them see; how awful and gruesome war is.
Griffiths shot his photographs in Vietnam using mostly a wide-angle lens because he thought it was important to fit as much into the frame as he could. There were occasions on any battlefield when he wouldn’t find it acceptable to be close to his subjects, and in those instances he said, “The only things that we photographers want more than life, more than sex, more than anything, is to be invisible.” Most of his work was done in color, but later on he converted to monochrome because he thought color in a photograph can be a great distraction from the subject itself. In black and white images, the shape and form of the subject are more observed. He explained, “Form and content have to be present, preferably in equal amounts.” Both were used as strong elements in this photograph. Also, in the post-processing phase of his photographs, Griffiths did not crop them at all. What he desired to have in the frame is what he shot the first time.
Griffith believed it was important tell the public what was real, instead of the sugar-coated truth from the corporate-run American media. “I’m a storyteller in the sense that I present the truth in an engaging way, rather like the way a lawyer would present evidence to a jury. There’s a logic to it. I try to explain what’s happening, using a narrative that leads to a convincing conclusion.” Griffith explained. The truth he presented through his images was that war was dehumanizing. It was cruel punishment to everyone around it, and still is today.