Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Philip Jones Griffiths 1936-2008 : The passing of a legend

It has been with great sadness that I recently learnt of the death of the legendary photographer Philip Jones Griffiths. Griffiths is probably best known for his book 'Vietnam Inc.' which is seen by many as one of the strongest examples of a thorough photojournalistic approach to a war in the 20th century.

As a photographer he took a deep interest in his subject, which he felt was necessary to be able to tell the complete story. He returned no less than 26 times to Vietnam, focusing not just on the conflict itself, but on its devastating aftermath, the legacy of Agent Orange. He was not just happy photographing the 'visual climaxes' of war as he believed they only served to decontexulize the situation. At the same time he realised he would be hard pushed to spread this work to a wider audience, especially at the beginning of the war, because the American media wasn't quite ready for his critical approach. He believed that the freedom of the press belongs to he who owns one (Griffiths interview, 2002), and so from early on he knew he would have to produce a book.

A few years ago I tried to get in contact with Griffiths to interview him for my dissertation, at the time I failed. A year or so later however whilst sat in the Frontline club in London, I heard his distinctive Welsh tones and on turning around found him seated behind me. I was pleasantly surprised if not a bit gob smacked. Here was a man that I had read so much about and whose images and influenced me so strongly when I was first getting into photography. At the end of the talk I plucked up the courage to introduce myself, and I even managed to persuade him to autograph a book I was reading on the Vietnam war (A Second edition of George Herring's 'Americas Longest War'). He questioned me on the book and its political stance before obliging my request and it wasn't until a few years later that I was able to go a see him again. At the time I was doing some work for the Sunday Times Magazines picture desk and they sent me along on the guest-list, I was able to see him in full glory do a presentation and talk about his work at length. Afterwards I finally got my copy of Vietnam inc signed by the man himself. Although from these quick acquaintances I would not attempt to judge him, the impression I got from people who worked with him closely is that he was a man dedicated to finding and telling the truth, often fighting as the David against the Goliaths of this world. In many ways he saw photography merely as tool, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. His work is a testament to the power of photography and an example of the importance of journalistic integrity in photographic work. He was never completely objective but then he never aimed to be, in many ways how can you ever claim to be? As the intellectual Susan Sontag wrote, a photograph is always 'an image that someone chose, to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude' (Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others). His images will forever be part of the history of their era, documents to remind us of past sins and mistakes that we told ourselves we would never make again. The were one mans indictment against the world-not only to the people committing the offenses but to all those going about their days, blissfully ignorant to the horrors committed in their name. They were his way of saying, you can't pretend this isn't happening. I only hope there are many more like him in the making.

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