An Unlikely Weapon
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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“It took 1/500th of a second to get the shot and a lifetime to forget it. Two lives were destroyed that day,” Eddie would lament. “That’s not my job.”
You don’t have to be a photographer, neither a journalist, to appreciate the documentary An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story. One would just have to be human to be impressed by the professional life story of esteemed Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Eddie Adams. Now, many may not know just who Adams is. But a photo that he took on Feb. 1, 1968, in Saigon was credited with having had great influence in ending the Vietnam War. The photo would “sear in the public’s mind the stark brutality of war.” The photo that would shake the war’s very foundation and could very well be labeled the “unlikely weapon”—as well as Adams’ camera—was a photo of the execution of a Vietcong prisoner titled Saigon Execution. The photo shows the National Chief of Police for South Vietnam, General Loan, shooting the prisoner point-blank in the head, with blood spurting out, and it “shocked people in the country,” said broadcast journalist Peter Jennings. “I think it brought home for everyone the absolute cruelty of that war, and whatever romance people may have felt about it washed away by that photograph,” said broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw. Photojournalist Bill Eppridge said, “I think this picture was the moment that changed the war.”
But the documentary reveals that Adams never considered the photo a great work of art and didn’t understand why it was so important. He could be considered a renegade, ambitious, hardworking, hard-cursing, photographer who loved his work, and who also loved and lived life to the fullest. During the time he was in Vietnam, shooting photos for the Associated Press, he couldn’t believe that the United States wasn’t as moved by the images taken by him and fellow photojournalists—until the photo of the execution was printed.
At one point prior to taking the photo, Adams had asked to return to New York City, but said he was concerned because while walking in Manhattan a Vietnam veteran on crutches was almost run over by a taxicab driver. He asked to be re-assigned back to Vietnam, because “I felt that people didn’t appreciate the war.” He also felt that as long as he was wearing his cameras and equipment out in the Vietnam fields that he was protected from any danger.
An Unlikely Weapon, narrated by Keifer Sutherland and directed by Susan Morgan Cooper, reveals what Adams perceived as our country’s initial reluctance to acknowledge the inhumane acts occurring within this “conflict,” as well as Adams’ moral dilemma about his part in the entire scheme of things. While newspaper accounts were also available, Adams’ and other photojournalists’ photos brought the battlefields of Vietnam to living rooms across the world. Adams believed their work could more amplify the circumstances of the war, as opposed to a writer just sending words across the newswires back to the United States. “You do what you have to do,” said the late photographer, director and poet Gordon Parks about the work of photojournalists chronicling the action of war. “You are trying to catch the last breath of a person dying, their last gasp; that is difficult. I’ve done that several times and you realize that the person realizes that I was there to record their last breath. You almost want to say I’m sorry for being there,” he said. “You don’t always come home feeling good about yourself, you know, but that’s what happens.”
Later Adams learns that the photograph had also inspired the Russian roulette scene in the movie the Deer Hunter. “He wasn’t allowed to forget that photograph,” said his son, August Adams. “It almost haunts me the same way it haunted my dad.” Rocker Dave Navarro says he keeps a copy of the photo on his wall to remind him of human suffering.
Adams’ The Boat of No Smiles photographs of refugees escaping Vietnam—with no children smiling in the bunch—was another instrumental body of work. Adams recalled that no matter what, children would always smile for photos, and in this case, their beaten, defeated faces, along with those of their parents, revealed such pain and despair. Eventually this collection of photos was presented to the U.S. Congress and led former Pres. Jimmy Carter to allow entry for more than 250,000 Vietnamese refugees into the United States in 1977. Walter Anderson, Editor, CEO Parade magazine, said, “Eddie could be an editor’s dream and an editor’s nightmare. That same genius led Eddie to be one of the biggest pains in the ass in journalism,” he said. “He could be the single, most demanding, selfish, self-centered, egomaniacal talent ever.” Adams says, “It was the only good thing I did in my life, but I’m not a good guy.”
After the Vietnam War, Adams took a job with Penthouse magazine and opened his own studio called Bathhouse Studios, which was housed in an old bathhouse. During this time, he shot photos of such celebs as Billy Crystal, Morgan Freeman, Ray Charles, Jerry Lewis, Adrien Brody, the Clintons, and Clint Eastwood—one of which became the poster for Eastwood’s Unforgiven movie. Adams also collaborated with Kerry Kennedy, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter, on a pictorial named Speak Truth to Power. The book showed Desmond Tutu and other human rights activists, as well as people who had had their human rights violated. In 2000 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, celebrities joined to read testimonies of the human rights offences in the book. The show even went on tour to a few cities, but Adams never joined in. He said they were just photos, again downplaying his importance. “Hell, if someone asked me nicely I’d give it to them,” he’d say of one of his valuable photographs.
Adams died in 2004.
An Unlikely Weapon will be screened in the Chicago area beginning July 17 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago. For more info about the screening, visit Web site www.siskelfilmcenter.org or call 312-846-2600. For more info about the documentary and other screening cities and dates, visit Web site www.anunlikelyweapon.com.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.
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