50 years of photojournalism
Like it or not, the talk surrounding my photojournalistic career (1951-2004) invariably turns the discussion to the Vietnam war.
It's true: Vietnam is the center of my career as a photographer. I was sent there by the Associated Press in 1962 and I stayed through to 1973. After my first experiences as a foreign correspondent in the Congo and Algeria, I found myself in the enviable position of agency photographer. Closer to the story, the history of the world happened right there in front of our eyes. It was from this time that some of the most striking and the most moving photos have come. Photos that would make the headlines of newspapers all over the world almost every day for weeks, months, and even more than ten years.
In Saigon, I was the 'primus inter pares', the director of photography for the AP working with a team of Vietnamese photographers as well as other nationalities. Depending on the intensity of the war, sometimes we were only a handful while at other times we were a whole regiment. This was a time when strong friendships were forged that last until today.
Five of us left behind our lives for the AP, and nearly all of us was injured at least once (myself in 1967). With Vietnam also came recognition, promotions, pay raises, the first Pulitzer, the Capa and a good many other rewards. I am one of the rare living photographers who has worked his whole life with the same agency: the Associated Press from 1956 until 2004. I shared my time between photography, working alone or in small groups, and my responsibility as director of photography.
I have to admit that "pure photography" was never my passion. I have always used photography as a means of expression as a news agency journalist. I could submit a written testimony, especially when the images did not tell the entire story. I loved the 'big story' but, in the world of agencies back then, there was no capacity to transmit and publish such work.
I worked mainly in black and white (I prefer B&W even today) because the newspapers that were the customers of the AP printed only in black and white. When the publications switched to color, I did too as did the Associated Press. Then, at the end of the 1970s, I was made the very attractive offer to succeed the boss of London, what I took as a role reversal of sorts. I would no longer be sent to London, Paris or New York to cover the crises or wars myself but it was now my responsibility to send other journalists to cover the riots and the wars for us.
The transition from journalistic photographer to the photo chief of Europe, the Middle East, Africa and former British colonies was very painful ƒ This pain, I can still feel it even today.
My second career, as director responsible for photography passed slowly. After a few years I was the "number 2" in London, assuring missions as photographer in the Middle East, in Africa and the whole of Europe - but I acted rather as a "fireman" and could not deal in depth with the complex subjects, such as the conflict of the Middle East.
I quickly realized that I could not handle both an organization as complex as the distribution and the European photos fund of the AP and take time to go on the ground with friends. I had to store away my cameras.
During the twenty five years that followed, I participated in the painful learning of the new technologies that became available to agencies. The first screens and the first keyboards, the first instant messaging, the faxes, the first film scanners, then the first digital lab that cost millions. Every year, more and more of the gadgets that would precede the instant transmission of digital photos. It was difficult to quickly produce a continuous stream of interesting photos while finalizing the best tools for the profession.
It was necessary to speak about technique, about money, to negotiate with labor syndicates, to resolve the perpetual problems of lack of personnel, money, material. Our main mission is still to supply the most timely, best photos of current events.
Little by little, with age I slipped away from the daily chaos that I had so much liked.
I retired in 2004, preparing a new career as amateur photographer. In May 2005, in Hanoi, after a ruptured aneurysm I was left paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. I hope that from this new observation post, I can continue to investigate the world and to assist in the emergence of photojournalism, stemming from the perpetual changes of the world of reportage.