The Vietnam War, Through Eddie Adams' Lens Adams photographed 13 wars, and made some of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War. But the Pulitzer Prize he won for one photograph left him conflicted for the rest of his life.
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The Vietnam War, Through Eddie Adams' Lens

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The Vietnam War, Through Eddie Adams' Lens

The Vietnam War, Through Eddie Adams' Lens

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Eddie Adams photographed 13 wars. He was known for his searing battle scenes and for his portraits of celebrities and politicians, everyone from Fidel Castro to Mother Teresa. But the Pulitzer Prize that Adams won for his most iconic Vietnam photograph left him confused and conflicted. Now his Vietnam photos have been collected in a new book and a New York City exhibit.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: What you hear from everyone who covered the war in Vietnam as a writer or photographer is this.

Mr. HAL BUELL (Former Photography Director, Associated Press): No war was ever photographed the way Vietnam was, and no war will ever be photographed again the way Vietnam was photographed.

ADLER: That's Hal Buell, who was with the AP for 41 years and head of its photo service for 23.

Mr. BUELL: There was no censorship of any kind. All the photographer had to do was convince a helicopter pilot to let him get on board a chopper going out to a battle scene, and so photographers had incredible access, which you don't get anymore.

ADLER: As you walk through the three rooms filled with Eddie Adams' Vietnam photographs, the portraits stick out. Close-up faces of men in battle calling for support, their expressions intense, a Viet Cong suspect being interrogated, a spear pointed at his throat, a woman clutching her baby trying to escape a firefight. Buell says it was a new kind of intimate storytelling photography.

Peter Arnett, formerly with AP and CNN, now teaching journalism at Shantou University in China, was with Adams in Vietnam. He says 60 photographers and journalists were killed during the war, and yet there were always others eager to take their place.

Mr. PETER ARNETT (Former Correspondent, AP, CNN): Enthusiastic, young photographers and reporters willing to go into the thick of the battle, despite the real dangers, to get that kind of close-up picture, enormous competition also between AP and UPI. It was the last great wire service competition war.

ADLER: Another difference, says Arnett, was that most journalists had been in the military, could talk the same language as the soldiers, had a better understanding of what was going on. Eddie Adams had been a combat photographer with the U.S. Marine Corps in Korea. He loved the Marines, and many of his photographs were of Marine operations.

But his most famous photograph was shot on the streets of Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. It was the second day of the Tet Offensive, a watershed battle in 1968 that changed public perceptions of the war. Suddenly, Adams saw a soldier drag a man in a checkered shirt out of a building. In a video, "An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story," Adams describes what happened.

(Soundbite of video, "An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story")

Mr. EDDIE ADAMS (Photographer): They were, like, taking him by the hand and they pulled him out in the street. Now, any photographer, when you grab a prisoner in New York or something, you just follow him. I mean, it's a picture. You know, you follow him until he's loaded into a wagon and driven away.

ADLER: Buell says out of the corner of his eye, Adams say General Loan raise his pistol.

Mr. BUELL: Normally, that's a way of interrogating, like hold a weapon to a man's head and ask questions. This man just raised the pistol, and as he did, Eddie made a picture of an interrogation, the man pulled the trigger.

Mr. ADAMS: I took one frame, and that was the instant that he shot him.

ADLER: The picture went around the world. It was held up at demonstrations. It was used by the intensifying anti-war movement. There were films of that same execution, but Buell says the still photo had more impact.

Mr. BUELL: You can look at this picture, and you see the gun and the clarity. You see the expression on the Viet Cong's face as the bullet literally enters his head. You see the soldier on the left, who is wincing at the thing that's happened, and then with the still picture, you have time to look at that and to consider all these factors.

ADLER: Adams found the attention given to this photo disturbing.

Mr. ARNETT: Eddie was never ashamed for having taken that picture. I mean, it was a brilliant piece of photography. He had the courage to stand a foot or two away from a murderous, you know, officer who had his pistol out and just shot the man in front of him.

ADLER: But Peter Arnett says Eddie could not come to terms with the fact that the anti-war movement looked at that picture as the photograph that proved that the American war effort was not worthy. Eddie Adams.

Mr. ADAMS: I still don't understand to this day why it was so important and I've heard so many different versions of what this picture did, like it helped end the war in Vietnam.

ADLER: Adams felt the picture only told part of the truth. An aide to the general and his family had been killed that morning. Adams felt he had damaged the war effort, and he later apologized to the general, who by then was running a pizza restaurant in the United States. But that picture and the picture by AP photographer Nick Ut of a little naked girl running after having been burned by napalm would come to define the war.

Eddie Adams died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 2004. His war photographs were never published in a book. Hal Buell says Adams had this intense desire to be perfect, so book projects were always delayed. Now, four and a half years after his death, "Eddie Adams: Vietnam" has been published by Umbrage Editions. The exhibition of his photographs is at Umbrage Gallery in Brooklyn and will be there until April 30th.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

SIEGEL: And you can see some of Eddie Adams' war photos at our Web site,

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