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When a handcuffed prisoner was shot by an officer in the head, point-blank, the photographer who captured the incident on print film was awarded a Pulitzer. The year was 1968 when the photograph was shot. The year was 1969 when the award was won. The Vietnam War had been a thorn in the side of the United States of America, and was at its heights, having begin about 14 years ago, with what would be another six more, to go.
Eddie Adams captured the image of the officer shooting a handcuffed prisoner in Vietnam in 1969 and the political statement that this photograph made, soured US attitudes about the horrors of the Vietnam War. The photograph gives away a brutal harshness: but what prevailed was not a linear situation that had overtones of good versus evil. The man who was being shot was the captain of the Vietcong Revenge Squad, which had executed scores and scores of unarmed civilians on the day that he was handcuffed and shot. Instead, the photograph became an iconic reminder of the savagery that war and conflict are known to have, and automatically made General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the man who pulled the trigger on the gun, an iconic villain.
While the photograph for the most part reflected on the horrors of the Vietnamese War, the legacy it left behind remained a linchpin that haunted General Loan for the rest of his life. He was mistreated wherever he went. He had a medical condition that needed treating, but an Australian hospital refused to treatment. He was then sent to the United States for medical assistance, but even there, he was welcomed unpleasantly with a long persisting campaign to deport him: however, it was unsuccessful. He managed to settle down in Virginia, where he opened a restaurant, but was forced to close it down as soon as his identity was discovered.
Eddie Adams felt awful for General Loan, and issued a public apology for having taken the photo at all. He reportedly admitted: “The general killed the Vietcong; I killed the general with my camera.”
Eddie Adams’ photograph is a firm reminder of the fact that the photographer has a duty to tell a story as it is, and not project a picture in such a way that it could mislead a viewer into believing an untruth to be a truth. This is where it gets tricky: and the deftness of the photographer in curating photographs as a series or a solo print, comes into play to ensure a flow of clarity.