Shooting Vietnam: Remembering Horst Faas

Originally published on May 23, 2012 10:47 am

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Horst Faas, who captured several iconic moments during the Vietnam War, died May 10. He was 79.

Haas was the chief of The Associated Press' Southeast Asia bureau from 1962 to 1974, where he covered the fighting and mentored dozens of young photographers who were sent out across Vietnam to capture images of the war's terror and inhumanity.

"There were no bad photographers around," Faas told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1997. "There was nobody who was [in a] second category. There's no room for mediocre talent in situations like this."

Faas' own images of wounded U.S. soldiers and a blindfolded Viet Cong suspect helped bring the war into American living rooms. He spent much of his time in Vietnam out in the field, following troops and Vietnamese civilians who were caught in the middle of the conflict.

"That means I would go out for five days and then stay in Saigon for five days and play the editor for the others, and then go out myself again and leave another photographer in at the editing desk," he said. "We took turns. So we all had our experiences there."

It was in Vietnam where Faas was severely wounded by a rocket fragment in 1967. A medic and a tank driver helped load him onto a helicopter, where he was dispatched to a medical facility.

"The only decision I made at that time was not to go to Honolulu or New York or anywhere, but to stay in Vietnam," he said. "One reason being that I had total trust in military surgeons who were dealing with these problems day in, day out. And secondly, I tried to avoid having my legs broken again at the New York head office and being made a photo editor at headquarters, 'cause that would have ended the great days of photography, eh?"

In 1997, Haas assembled some of the best photography from Vietnam in Requiem, a book about the photographers killed during the conflict. In 2005, he returned to the country for a press corps reunion party marking the 30th anniversary of the war's end.

"Being in Vietnam and being around a major story of the time was always a great shot of adrenaline," he said. "We — to put it frankly, we enjoyed ourselves much of the time."

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We're going to listen back to an interview with the German combat photographer Horst Faas. He died Thursday at the age of 79. He covered the war in Vietnam for The Associated Press from 1962 to '73. He won a Pulitzer for his photos from Vietnam, and won a second Pulitzer for his photos of the conflict in Bangladesh.

I spoke with him in 1997, after he and fellow photojournalist, Tim Page, edited the book "Requiem," which collected pictures by many of the 135 photojournalists who died while covering wars in southeast Asia in the 1960s and early 70s. Faas was injured in Vietnam. When we spoke, he was working as an editor for The Associated Press.

David Halberstam wrote a piece in Vanity Fair, in which he talked about you, Horst Faas, and he described you as one of the first photographers in Vietnam to use a Leica, which enabled the photographer to look forward instead of down. Would you describe what that difference was and how that affected your safety and your photographs?

HORST FAAS: Well, I wasn't the first one to use Leica. Larry Burrows, I have to almost at the same time, had considerably more Leicas then I had because at the time AP was still working with large-format cameras and I carried one or two of my own Leicas in there. Well, a Leica camera is a camera we can keep both eyes open. You can look for the free eye that doesn't look to viewfinder and in all directions. It's like backwards - and sometimes, also backwards and you can look for the viewfinder and see your picture. So it may be sports photography or maybe war photography, the Leica camera, at the time, appeared to me like a camera that made it possible that you were at all times aware of things happening around you.

The other wonderful things, the Leica was that you could actually take it apart like a rifle, clean it out, dry it out, put it together again with a set of little screwdrivers and it will work again - something that is impossible with today's electronic chip cameras.

GROSS: Drying it out when you're in the middle of the jungle, was probably a good thing to do.

FAAS: No, it happened very often that you fell into a water hole or in the river and you couldn't operate anymore, your whole being there was useless. And at that time the troops would take a little break, you'd take your cameras apart and put it on a black piece of plastic and hope the sun comes up and drives your cameras out. If not, they go back in a plastic bag and you wait for the next stop in then spread them out again. So sometimes it took a day or two or three to get the stuff working again, and then you are back in operation.

GROSS: Well, I can imagine how you must have felt, though, when your camera wasn't operating and you're caught in combat and wondering - or at least I'd be wondering, what am I doing here?

FAAS: That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You spent most of your time, saying that anyway.

FAAS: I could, of course, become a world reporter that goes for nights. When you're out in the military situation you can't take pictures at night because flashlights. So at night and in bad weather and in dark weather the cameras went into the fish tackling box, which was waterproof, and I would just use my mind and try to keep quotes there and write down little stories. And many times I came back without photos but with a good memory of a good tale, and I would sit down at the typewriter and write my story for the AP.

GROSS: Were you ever in a position where you had assigned a photographer to go someplace to take pictures, and they were killed on that particular job?

FAAS: Well, all the... No assignment was an assignment where people were ordered to go to places. We generally assessed the day-to-day situation and photographers would go out according to their preferences. The Vietnamese would rather go out with Vietnamese troops, we had other Vietnamese photographers who loved the American Marines. If they did so, then let them go up there. They were all - almost all equally good. There were no bad photographers around. There was nobody who were second category. There's no room for mediocre talent in situations like this.

GROSS: Did you ever try to talk a AP photographer out of going to a certain place?

FAAS: Oh yes. Many times. I mean, I myself spent about 50 percent of my working life in Vietnam and in the fields. That means I would go out for five days and then stay inside around four or five days and play the editor for the others, and then go out myself again and leave another photographer at the editing desk. We took turns so we all had our experiences there. I being a little bit on the senior side, already, in these days I was 30 and older, so older than many of the young colleagues, and I tried to warn people. I tried to instill to them that they shouldn't go with bad troops. They should rather pull back and take care of themselves and look out in situations became dicey, and never ever be foolishly risking chances.

GROSS: What are bad troops?

FAAS: Bad troops are troops that don't take care of themselves, Marines that don't dig in, patrols that don't put out points, companies that go through the jungle in single file without having flanks out. Troops that handle their weapons sloppishly(ph), artillery observers that don't check out the terrain properly and so on.

GROSS: Horst Faas, you were wounded in Vietnam. What was your wound and what impact did that have on your life, your work, your commitment to war photojournalism?

FAAS: Well, I was wounded in December 1967 by a big rocket fragment that tore through my legs. And thanks to an American medic who somehow pulled me back, and thanks to a tank driver who moved forward and loaded me and brought me back to some clearing, and thanks to a helicopter pilot who came in and picked me out, together with some other wounded; and thanks to surgeons who decided not to cut off my leg as they intended to do first. I was aware that I was on the way to recovery four, five days later. And the only decision I made at that time was not to go to Honolulu or New York or anywhere, but to stay in Vietnam. One reason being that I have total trust in military surgeons who were dealing with these problems, day in and day out. And secondly, I try to avoid having my legs broken again at the New York at office and being made a photo editor at headquarters, because that would've ended the great days of photography, huh?


GROSS: Combat photographer and editor Horst Faas, recorded in 1997. He died last Thursday at the age of 79.

Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new American Masters documentary, Johnny Carson King of late night. It airs tonight on public TV. This is FRESH AIR.

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