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Vietnam through the lens of a Londoner
Larry Burrows, one of the most famous photojournalists of the 20th century, gained international recognition with photographs taken in the hell of the Vietnam War.
A MAN FROM LONDON
Born Henry Frank Leslie Burrows, in London in 1926, Larry Burrows was 16 when he left school to work for the office of Life Magazine in London. He was not conscripted into the army partly because of his age and partly because of his terrible eyesight. Instead of military service, he was drafted at 18 to work in a coal mine, an unpleasant place where his health deteriorated.
After World War Two he could return to Life. Initially, his work lacked challenge. He had to do whatever the experienced photographers and technicians asked from him, such as making tea and film drying; but sometimes luck smiled on him, and he had a chance to work with the celebrated war correspondent ace of Life Magazine, Robert Capa.
Soon he could have the opportunity to take portraits of famous people such as Winston Churchill, Brigitte Bardot, and of the Japanese ruler Emperor Hirohito. Although he was regarded as too young to cover the events of the Korean War (1950-53), in 1956 an opportunity was given to him to report on the Suez Crisis. In 1960, Burrows traveled to the Belgian Congo and shot the moments of the independence process of the former colony. It was there where he lost his beloved Leica camera that he used at that time, but later he bought another one. (Recollections indicate that Burrows regarded his work in the Congo much harder than covering the Vietnam War.) Besides Africa, he was also at the assassination of Faisal II of Iraq in 1958 and photographed the Sino-Indian War in 1962.
Life gave him a free hand, so he did not need to deal with the deadlines – which allowed him to spend weeks or months in the selected country to take the really telling moments. He settled in Hong Kong in 1961 and began to cover the Vietnam War in 1962.
MARINES INTO FOCUS
Larry Burrows strove to introduce the true face of war to the magazine readers. His leading theme was the Marines serving in Vietnam. They usually had the dirty jobs to do, and to face the cruelest armed clashes, often relying on outdated equipment and wavering supply lines.
When the first images of Larry Burrows work titled “The Vicious Fighting in Vietnam” were published in Life in January 1963, they deeply impressed the readers. His first major 14-page photo essay consisted of only color photographs and delivered a much more intense picture of the struggle in Indochina than contemporary black and white war photos. It was the time when America’s intervention in Vietnam increased, which had not really preoccupied the public up until Larry Burrow’s photographs. The conflict in Vietnam, which millions of Americans considered to be a problem that would be solved as time passed by, turned into a vicious jungle war fought against an invisible enemy.
One of his most famous pictures titled “Reaching Out”, also depicts the Marines in action. In October 1966 the troops of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, engaged in a fierce battle for Hill 484 with the North Vietnamese forces. Larry Burrows was at the scene of the heavy fighting and managed to capture an iconic moment showing a wounded and shocked Marine, Sgt. Jeremiah Purdie, who, with a bandaged head, is reaching out to his comrade, also wounded and sitting apathetically in the mud. The tragic and surrealistic atmosphere is magnified by the color of the wet and muddy environment and the mud that covers the soldier’s faces and bodies. Among the Marines participating in the clashes, 240 died and more than 1200 were wounded.
AN ENGLISH GENTLEMAN
Naturally, the editors of Life were worried about one of their best photographer’s physical integrity, so they sent him on less dangerous missions too. In order to appease his employers, Larry Burrows shot the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics and also made a wildlife report in Indonesia the following year. He traveled to India in 1968 to make a photo essay on the occasion of the 200-year-old existence of the East India Company and returned back to the country in 1971 to make a photo shoot on Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
Those “peace missions” did not prevent him from returning to Vietnam again and again. According to the recollections of his colleagues, Burrows stayed at the Caravelle Hotel located next to the Life office in Saigon. He always insisted on two beds, one for taking a rest and the other for his equipment that he spread on it. Burrows always updated his knowledge on the latest technology and quickly got the most up to date Nikon cameras. He was among the first who began to use the legendary Nikon F camera, one of the most advanced cameras of those days.
Recollections also depict him as a supportive man who was helpful for his colleagues, especially for those who first visited Vietnam. The younger photographers considered him as a kind of father figure. That sort of mentoring attitude was rooted in his rookie years spent in London, where Burrows could work with eminent photographers such as Robert Capa, George Rodger, Ralph Morse and Frank Scherschel. Although often visiting risky places, he never saw himself as an adrenaline junky; he was simply driven by the incentive to present the real nature of war.
MOMENTS FROM VIETNAM
One of Larry Burrows’ truly classic photo essays was shot when he accompanied the crew of a helicopter called Yankee Papa 13. Early in the spring of 1965, 3,500 Marines had arrived in Vietnam and the British photojournalist escorted them on their military operations. The Yankee Papa 13 took off to complete its mission on March 31, 1965, under the command of James Farley, to support South Vietnamese troops. But soon, while close to the landing zone, the copter was ambushed and got caught in a crossfire. The crew spotted another copter, Yankee Papa 3, nearby. It did not lift off, although its engine was running and its rotors were still spinning so Farley and one of his comrades, taking advantage of the lull in the firing, decided to check the aircraft.
They managed to bring the severely wounded pilot James E. Magel and the gunner (also wounded), Sergeant Billy Owens, aboard Yankee Papa 13, which had been sprayed with bullets. There were several bullet holes on the seats, and the plexiglass of the cockpit was also shot out; even the pilot got hit on his neck, but the copter managed to leave the battlefield. The injured soldiers received first aid as soon as it was possible, but tragically, James E. Magel did not make it. The essay of Burrows on the ill-fated mission of the Yankee Papa 13 told more about the effect of war than any vivid spoken description, and deeply affected the public.
It would be a mistake, however, to forget that Burrows photographed not only the surrealistic or chilling moments of the battlefields in Vietnam. Not long after the mission of Yankee Papa 13, he turned his camera to the civilian victims of the war and made a photo essay on a Vietnamese girl named Tron who lost her leg after being shot by an American helicopter. Later, other moving photographs were taken by Burrows that depicted the daily life and struggle of the ten-year-old Lau Nguyen who was paralyzed by shrapnel. The photograph of a woman carrying the dead body of her husband who had been killed by the Vietcong was also a masterpiece. The lady’s grief radiating from the photo moved thousands all around the globe.
PEOPLE DEVOURED BY THE WAR
The eminent photojournalist did not live to see the moment when the war that created perfect themes for his photographs was over. Larry Burrows, together with his colleagues, boarded a helicopter on February 10, 1971, to cover operation Lam Son 719 launched by the South Vietnamese army in Laos with the support of the United States to block the supply route of the North Vietnamese forces. The offensive met fierce resistance which probably caused the death of Larry Burrows too. The copter was shot by a 37 mm anti-aircraft gun, which turned the aircraft into a fireball, giving no chance of survival for the passengers and the crew.
Besides Larry Burrows, photojournalists Henri Huet of Associated Press, Kent Potter of United Press International and Keisaburo Shimamoto of Newsweek were aboard the doomed copter. The scene of the tragedy was practically inaccessible, so initiating any rescue missions to find survivors was simply impossible.
Finally, in 1998 a recovery team was organized with a mission to find the crash site of the helicopter. Only minor items were discovered: a crumpled part of a Leica camera that once belonged to Larry Burrows, some broken lenses, a medallion worn by Henri Huet and traces of organic material. The recovered items were brought to the Freedom Forum’s Newseum in Washington D. C. where they were buried at the memorial site of journalists killed in action.
Most of us do not have any direct experience of war. Armed conflicts, being fought in faraway places, can hardly impact the everyday lives of the Western world. However, due to photo reporters, the gruesome reality of the war could be delivered to people living far away from the horror of the front lines. Larry Burrows, one of the most famous photojournalists of the 20th century, gained international recognition with photographs taken in the hell of the Vietnam War.
Did you know?
Legend has it that Larry Burrows was the man who, working as a technician, spoiled Robert Capa’s photographs taken of D-Day. In truth, he was not the culprit.
During the more than 30-year period of the Indochina Wars, around 130 photojournalists were killed.
The photo titled “Reaching Out” was so powerful and gripping that it was published only after the death of Larry Burrows.