An Interview with Philip Jones Griffiths

Philip Jones Griffiths is one of the world's most celebrated war photographers. For more than forty years his pictures have appeared in such esteemed magazines as Time and Newsweek. In 1971 his book Vietnam Inc helped turn the tide of public opinion against the war in south east Asia and is now regarded as a classic of photojournalism. Perhaps the defining quality of his work is the stark and often grotesque contrasts he makes between the human and the militaristic. This email interview was completed by Philip in May 2004, from his home in New York City.



Can you remember the first photograph you ever took?

Philip Jones Griffiths: We were in a rowboat off Holyhead and I snapped my friend with the family box-brownie.

How has being Welsh (indeed a Welsh-speaker) influenced your outlook with regards your photographic career?

Philip Jones Griffiths: Speaking Welsh has often come in handy - the secret policemen of the world become confused and hesitant when I explain, "O'r delegation Cymraeg dwi'n dod."
As for the broader issue, coming from a country being swallowed up by its neighbour gave me a natural sympathy for the Davids over the Goliaths of this world.

Your book Vietnam Inc (1971) is now regarded as a classic of photojournalism. How difficult was it at the time though trying to sell essentially anti-war images in a patriotic pro-war market?

Philip Jones Griffiths: Very difficult indeed. Although when Vietnam Inc. was published there was already growing doubt. For many, the book confirmed their fears.

In light of the recent 'torture' pictures coming out of Iraq how well, in your view, did American troops treat the civilian population in Vietnam?

Philip Jones Griffiths: When Lt. Calley was questioned during his trail for the My Lai massacre he was asked, "You threw babies in the air and shot them on the way down?" The reply was, "Yes sir, in the air." Iraq is only different because every soldier seems to have a digital camera.

In a war situation how do you conquer a basic sense of fear?

Philip Jones Griffiths: Good question ­ and I don't have a convincing answer. For sure, I'm not someone who "gets off" on violence - I hate it. Certainly a journalist needs a sense of perspective. In war situations you need to keep a cool head and distinguish between reality and fear. If you don't you're much more likely to die. In Vietnam I discovered that when a lot of shit was flying about I was able to keep my cool. I've had a hood put over my head and been taken out to be shot. When my executioners cocked their rifles and fired, they missed. Obviously I was scared, but kept thinking this was a more dignified way to go than dying in a car crash. I didn't piss my pants and I'm very proud of that.

Noam Chomsky wrote the introduction to the 2001 reprint of
Vietnam Inc. How did that come about?

Philip Jones Griffiths: He's an old friend. When Vietnam Inc. was first published he asked if he could use one of my captions: 'The Backroom Boys' (The scientists at Dow Chemical making napalm more effective) as the title of a book he was preparing.

In your recent book Agent Orange: "Collateral Damage" in Viet Nam (2003) you examine the devastating long-term effects of chemical weapons usage by the US in the Vietnam conflict. Do you view the widespread use of herbicide as a war crime for which the US should now be punished?

Philip Jones Griffiths: America is never punished for anything - they've always disregarded the Geneva Conventions. Realistically, and if they had the slightest interest in receiving world approval, America would at least compensate the victims.

Your pictures, although often horrific in subject matter, have a kind of sombre beauty. As a photojournalist you have to make aesthetic judgements as well as moral ones - how do you balance this equation?

Philip Jones Griffiths: They are intertwined. Form and content have to be present, preferably in equal amounts. One without the other simply does not make it as a great photograph.

Leafing through Dark Odyssey (1997) again it is noticeable that the 'human' almost always undermines the 'military' in your work - how deliberate is this approach?

Philip Jones Griffiths: Very deliberate! All wars depend on de-humanising the 'enemy' ­ the foreign 'other'. I've tried to concentrate on showing the human face of conflict.

What did you make of the practice of 'embedding' journalists in the Iraq war? Do you think it brought them closer to the conflict or ended up making them cheerleaders for their own army?

Philip Jones Griffiths: Both. It's not always clear-cut. Many media became cheerleaders, but perhaps they were beforehand. Certainly they got close to the action (although many saw none at all.) I've spent lots of time with soldiers and my attitude, to quote a pulpitism, was to: 'Love the sinner, hate the sin'. I never underestimated their capacity for violence but by being honest I was always treated fairly. Sometimes I had to work at winning them over and some became friends. My objective was not to allow my positive feelings towards them as individuals to cloud the fact that they were prosecuting a genocidal war.

Which photographers have exerted the greatest influence upon you?

Philip Jones Griffiths: Henri Cartier-Bresson. The first picture of his I ever saw was during a lecture at the Rhyl camera club. I was 16 and the speaker was Emrys Jones. He projected the picture upside down. Deliberately, to disregard the subject matter to reveal the composition. It's a lesson I've never forgotten.

What cameras and lenses do you use?

Philip Jones Griffiths: I've got one of everything and five of most. There is no perfect camera. Some have great bodies but lousy lenses and vice-versa. All my life I've had this recurrent dream of discovering the perfect camera in some back street shop in Bangkok. Poets can scribble with charcoal on bits of paper ­ we, alas, are forced to fret over the deficiencies of our equipment.

In 1980 you became president of Magnum photo agency, a post you held for five years. Did you enjoy the experience?

Philip Jones Griffiths: My presidency gave me great satisfaction. I dragged Magnum kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. I introduced computers, email (even in 1980), print making, duping and catalogued the library. And at the same time the agency's output flourished ­ it was a period when many great stories were produced.

After covering so many conflicts have you become inured to war?

Philip Jones Griffiths: Not at all. Each new one disgusts me and at the same time provides a challenge to examine the causes.

Finally, you've lived an incredibly nomadic existence, travelling all over the globe in pursuit of stories and pictures. Have you found time in between all the wars, the fighting, the politics, to fall in love, get married, and enjoy some of the good things in life?

Philip Jones Griffiths: I've enjoyed all the good things in life. While never signing any pieces of paper (I will never allow bourgeois society to dictate my emotions!) I've had two significant relationships that resulted in two wonderful daughters. As for falling in love, this happens on a daily basis...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Philip's books Vietnam Inc, Dark Odyssey and Agent Orange: "Collateral Damage" in Viet Nam are all available through Amazon.

ŠAnthony Brockway 2004