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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Turning the camera back on Vietnam
By Neil Arun
BBC News

Philip Jones Griffiths feels as keenly as ever the craving that drove him, 30 years ago, to document the misery and beauty of the Vietnam war.

Seven Up poster in Vietnam

"The only thing we photographers really want," he says, "more than life, more than sex, more than anything, is to be invisible."

Griffiths' camera captured the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese and the incongruity of the US army in their midst.

Vietnam Inc., the 1971 book of his work for the Magnum agency, galvanised the anti-war movement and is now hailed as a classic of photojournalism.

"I wanted to show that the Vietnamese were people the Americans should be emulating rather than destroying," he told the BBC News website.

Vietnam's contrasts

Long after the war ended, Griffiths kept returning to the country he describes as "a jigsaw puzzle you can't leave alone".

His latest book of pictures, Vietnam at Peace, shows how sanctions and the Soviet Union's collapse have forced the war's communist victors to embrace the capitalist ideology they once so bloodily fought against.

Philip Jones Griffiths
Being embedded is against everything journalism stands for
Philip Jones Griffiths

"Five million people died as a result of that war. What for?" he asks bitterly.

He describes as "obscene" the sight of a US chemical company that manufactured bombs during the war building its new office in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City - known during the war as Saigon.

Griffiths' lens seeks out the contrasts of the new Vietnam - brash wealth alongside timeless poverty, the scars of conflict and the perseverance of its people.

"With the introduction of western consumer capitalism, all the social ills have come to the fore," he says.

"You might say, rather cynically, that now that the prostitutes and drug addicts and thieves are back, Vietnam is able to take its place proudly among the community of nations."

There was a stage when Griffiths often found himself asking: "Who really won the war?"

Matters have improved since then, he says, and Vietnam is beginning to dictate its own terms in the global market.

"The Vietnamese are very proud that they are an independent country. You often hear them say - if we make mistakes, at least they are our mistakes."

Digital age

Having built up a career chronicling what he describes as "the onward march of the American empire", Griffiths has become a keen critic of the war in Iraq and the way it has been reported.

Abu Ghraib prison
Digital photography brought the Abu Ghraib prison abuses to light

He praises the internet for undermining attempts to censor the war, citing how photographs of US soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees first appeared on the web.

"It is interesting to postulate what would have happened if those pictures had arrived on the desk of a major newspaper or magazine," he says.

"It was the fact that they had already been published, so to speak, on the internet, that other people felt prepared to publicise them."

He says the arrival of the digital camera has also emboldened amateur photographers. They can take risky, potentially compromising photos in a war zone with the assurance that nobody else - no developer - ever has to see them.

Some of the most critical images emerging from the Iraq war have the artless quality of pictures taken by the police at crime scenes, he says.

But, says Griffiths, this does not mean they are devoid of artistry. He cites as an example the image released last year of a hooded prisoner in Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail that evoked many things to him - "a bat, a bird, a fallen angel".

Griffiths has no plans to visit Iraq and is scathing about reporters who "embed" themselves with the military, allowing their stories to be censored in exchange for the security of an armed escort.

"Being embedded is against everything journalism stands for," he says. But he concedes, the alternative in Iraq - risking kidnap or death by working alone - is equally unappealing.

"If you're a European like me, you won't get very far," he says.

Besides, he says wryly, he would not want to put his photo agency, Magnum, through the ignominy of having to barter with kidnappers.

"They will say - look, a million-dollar ransom is more than we can afford but we can scrape together 50,000 dollars.

"I would hate to be marked down like that," he says.

Vietnam at Peace is published by Trolley Books

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