World Press Photo of the Year, prize singles
South Vietnam National Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes suspected Viet Cong member Nguyen Van Lem, on the second day of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War.
On 31 January 1968, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong launched a large-scale offensive attacking most major cities in South Vietnam simultaneously. The attacks came as a complete surprise for both the South Vietnamese Army and the American Army, as the Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday of Tet had just begun, and a ceasefire had been announced for the duration of the holiday. Within a day, the streets of Saigon, a presumed safe hold, had turned into a battlefield. It would take the South Vietnamese Army and the American forces two weeks to regain control of the city.
The Associated Press
Technical information & keywords
KeywordsAmerican War (1961-1975) Việt-Cộng Viet Cong Mặt trận dân tộc giải phóng miền nam Việt Nam National Liberation Front of South Viet Nam Nguyen Ngoc Loan Nguyen Van Lem Resistance War against America (1961-1975) Second Indochina War (1961-1975) War Vietnam War (1961-1975) Executions and executioners Tet Offensive (1968) Prisoners Police
On the second day of the Tet Offensive, heavy fighting around the An Quang Pagoda was reported. Eddie Adams, who worked for The Associated Press (AP) teamed up with a NBC cameraman and went to the area. They found the streets already abandoned and littered with fighting debris. The South Vietnamese Marines had recaptured the pagoda. At the end of the street, Adams saw two Vietnamese soldiers escorting a prisoner in the direction of the pagoda. While he made the occasional photo, the group stopped in front of the pagoda. General Loan came outside, and in the viewfinder of his camera, Adams saw him walking to the prisoner, pulling his pistol out of his holster and, quite suddenly, shooting the man in front of the temple. Loan and Adams released their shutter at the same time, while NBC filmed the entire incident. According to Adams, General Loan said directly afterwards: “They killed many of my men and many of your people.”
Press & public opinion
The Tet Offensive brought the Vietnam War back onto the international front pages for many weeks. Horst Faas, AP’s coordinator in Saigon, edited Eddie Adams’ film of the event, and was responsible for sending it out into the world through the wire service. One day later, on 2 February 1968, Adams’ photo appeared on the front page of most major newspapers around the world. The New York Times, for example, published the photograph on its front page, and a sequence of three images on page 12. These had been selected from the complete series, which counted 14 images in total.
Eddie Adams about the reason why he had not tried to prevent the execution in an interview with the Dutch newspaper ‘De Haagsche Courant’ (14 March 1969) after winning the World Press Photo of the Year: “At the moment itself, I was terrified to be shot myself. Perhaps I should explain the situation. In February 1968, the Viet Cong began the Tet Offensive. We made our routine pictures, and, in fact, nothing extraordinary seemed to happen. On the second or third day, I joined a group of South Vietnamese Marines, who tried to recapture a pagoda that had been occupied by the Viet Cong. Many people were killed or wounded. When I returned to our office, I saw a few South Vietnamese soldiers who had captured that boy in the checked shirt, bringing him over. I followed the little group and took some photographs, as you never knew whether the man would try to escape. I had followed them for about a block, when suddenly, on my left hand side and about three meters away, this police commander emerged. He shot the boy and walked away. I had used my camera, but I did not even know whether I had recorded the killing. We only discovered that later, after developing the film. I reacted in such a reflex, that I did not realize what I had witnessed.” In March 1968, a month after he took the award-winning photograph, Eddie Eddie Adams about his follow-up story on General Nguyen Ngoc Loan in an interview with the Dutch newspaper ‘De Haagsche Courant’ (14 March 1969): “I wanted to do a follow-up of this picture, but the office [Associated Press] was afraid that I would come to some harm. For a month, though, I kept going to his bureau, trying to speak to him, but I never got any further than his aide. In the middle of March, I finally got ahold of him and told him that I would like to make a story about him. He asked me: why? Because he was now well known, I told him. Then he really scared me, when he leaned over and said to me in a confidential tone: ‘I know the Vietnamese who made that photograph.’ He probably knew that I made the photo, but I never told him, and he never asked. Nguyen Loan granted me exclusive permission to follow him, like a shadow, for one week. For seven days we slept next to each other in the open air on a few sheets, we ate together and talked. During the whole week, we never spoke about the photo.” Adams also told ‘De Haagsche Courant’ that he never got the feeling that he was living with a murderer: “Everyone in Saigon loved him. He was popular with soldiers and civilians alike. He was a natural leader. Everywhere he went, he was well respected. The photo is part of a bigger picture, which you cannot judge by looking at the photo alone.”
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