I remember standing in front of the wall-sized photo, oblivious to the tears running down my face. The photograph was so horrible, yet I couldn’t look away.
It was my first visit to the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The display of Associated Press photos were being featured as part of an anniversary observance. Among them was one I’m sure is familiar with many of you baby boomers. Titled “The Saigon Execution,” it was taken by the late Edward Adams, an AP photographer. It also won a Pulitzer Prize.
Adams didn’t just snap the shot though; he gave the photograph perspective.
On Jan. 30, 1968, North Vietnam’s Tet offensive brought fighting into the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Two days later, on Feb. 1, Adams and an NBC crew came upon two South Vietnamese soldiers and a prisoner.
According to information provided by Adams, here’s what happened:
“And out of nowhere came this guy who we didn’t know.” Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of South Vietnam’s national police, walked up and shot the prisoner in the head. His reason: The prisoner, a Viet Cong lieutenant, had just murdered a South Vietnamese colonel, his wife and their six children.
The photo was widely used as a symbol of the Vietnam War’s brutality. But Adams, who stayed in touch with Loan, said the photo wrongly stereotyped the man: “If you’re this general and you just caught this guy after he killed some of your people … how do you know you wouldn’t have pulled that trigger yourself? You have to put yourself in that situation … It’s a war.” Adams died in 2004, but the photojournalist will always be remembered for his work, not just as a photographer but as a photographer who knew how to tell a story.
Photos often are as much a part of a news story as the reporter’s written words. That’s why I think the Chicago Sun-Times and some other newspapers that are following suit are not just making a business mistake by firing their photojournalists, but they are cheating their readers — and the world, quite frankly — of photos that will be talked about for decades to come.
The metro newspaper in May laid off its entire photo department. Among them was John H. White, a photographer who had won a Pulitzer for the paper. The Sun-Times’ strategy for its future relies on reporters taking their stills and videos on iPhones and hiring freelance photographers.
At the Globe, we sometimes ask our reporters to snap a shot, but since we employ two award-winning photojournalists — T. Rob Brown and Roger Nomer — we look to them to shoot the majority of the photos you see in our newspaper. We also have several accomplished photo stringers who receive assignments for our paper. All of them are trained and understand there are ethics and standards for them just as there are ethics and standards for reporters. We also invite our readers to submit their own photos. We often use them on Page 3A of our paper and label them our “community photos.” There are many talented amateur photographers of all ages, and we are happy to publish their work. Certainly in the 2011 tornado aftermath, we welcomed photos sent to us by our readers.
We just don’t think a news source should rely solely on what the Chicago Sun-Times is calling its new model.
Roger told me that layoffs in photojournalism stopped being surprising news years ago.
“Every photographer has experienced them through a friend, co-worker, or personally. I’ve had all three, which again, isn’t unusual. What was unusual was the firing of an entire photo staff by the Chicago Sun-Times. What pushed the news past unusual to bizarre was the report that the paper was replacing their seasoned staff (including Pulitzer winner John White, who covered Chicago for over 30 years) with an emphasis on video and reporters using iPhones.
“I don’t have anything against either of those methods. Mobile and video journalism are playing ever-increasing roles in newspapers, and any paper that doesn’t develop those skills will be left behind. Here at the Globe, we’ve embraced them and are trying to find creative ways to help them tell stories to our readers. However, neither iPhones nor video are a replacement for professional photojournalists telling a story with skill and emotion,” Roger said.
Roger astutely explains why what he does is so important to our readers.
“You know when you see a photo, and you can’t quite place your finger on why you like it? But you know you like it, that it connects with you in some way. That thing you can’t put your finger on is brought to you by the photographer’s eye. It’s a skill carefully developed by the photographer through hard-earned experience and training.”
I understand that the way we gather news and photos will continue to change. I also understand that the way great photos affect a reader is immeasurable.
Carol Stark is the editor-in-chief of The Joplin Globe.