Photography and War

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Burning Monk - The Self-Immolation

June 11, 1963

Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam.. Eye witness accounts state that Thich Quang Duc and at least two fellow monks arrived at the intersection by car, Thich Quang Duc got out of the car, assumed the traditional lotus position and the accompanying monks helped him pour gasoline over himself. He ignited the gasoline by lighting a match and burned to death in a matter of minutes.

David Halberstam, a reporter for the New York Times covering the war in Vietnam, gave the following account:

I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think…. As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.

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Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla

February 1, 1968

Photo credit: Eddie Adams

With North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive beginning, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, was doing all he could to keep Viet Cong guerrillas from Saigon.

Nguyen Van Lem was captured, his hands bound, he was brought in front of the journalists. Loan pulled out his revolver and immediately executed the prisoner. Loan later insisted that this was justified because the prisoner had been the captain of a terrorist squad that had killed the family of one of his deputy commanders.

Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for a picture that, as much as any, turned public opinion against the war. Adams felt that many misinterpreted the scene and in Time Magazine stated: "The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths."

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Young Pan Thi Kim Phuc flees down Route 1 from the village of Trang Bang. She was burned by naplam dropped from South Vietnamese planes.
Photo Credit: Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut

June 8, 1972

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Ohio National Guardsmen fire on student protestors at Kent State University, Ohio, killing 4 and wounding 16. Photo Credit: John Filo.

May 4, 1970

When President Richard Nixon said he was sending troops to Cambodia, the nation’s colleges erupted in protest. At Kent State some threw rocks. The Ohio National Guard, called in to quell the turmoil, suddenly turned and fired, killing four; two were simply walking to class. This photo captured a pivotal moment: American soldiers had just killed American kids. Student photographer John Filo won the Pulitzer prize for this photo. The girl, Mary Ann Vecchio, turned out not to be a Kent State student, but a 14-year-old runaway. She was sent back to her family in Florida.

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Evacuees are helped aboard an Air America helicopter perched atop a Saigon building during the fall of Saigon

April 29, 1975

The Fall of Saigon, on April 30, 1975, was the capture of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army. A massive evacuation of diplomats, foreign nationals, and Vietnamese refugees occurred before the city fell. It is usually marked as the end of the Vietnam War.

Within 24 hours of the fall, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Order was quickly restored to the city, although the US Embassy, previously the site of an evacuation by helicopter, was looted.

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