Polaroids Tell the Story of Those Who Covered Vietnam

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This photo is on the cover of The Polaroid Portraits. Ulevich writes about the p

This photo is on the cover of The Polaroid Portraits. Ulevich writes about the project on his website: The subjects are fellow journalists, photographers, friends, newsmakers. In Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane I simply asked them to pause for a snapshot. It was my personal project, and no one took a Polaroid camera seriously. French Photojournalist Michel Laurent, above, was killed in combat the last day of the Indochina war.

Nobody really knows how many journalists actually covered the Vietnam War over the years from 1961 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, but it is likely that most of them visited the Saigon bureau of the Associated Press at some point. “AP Saigon” was not just a signoff on the wire, but — like its competitors at UPI and Reuters — a vital source of real-time information and support for other members of the Saigon press corps.

For some resident correspondents, the AP bureau on the fifth floor of the Eden Building overlooking Lam Son Square was a daily stop for coffee, conversation and a look at the world and Vietnam news clipboards. Visiting journalists called on AP for help in developing and transmitting pictures to home offices, and it was the first place that many newcomers came to for guidance and advice after dropping their gear at the Continental or Caravelle hotel.

Now comes The Polaroid Portraits, Indochina 1972-1975 [www.blurb.com], a unique record of these pilgrimages, produced in book form by Neal Ulevich, a former AP staff photographer who worked in Indochina and later in Thailand, China and Japan, and earned a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in Bangkok in 1976.

Between 1972 and April 1975, when he left Vietnam aboard an evacuation helicopter from the U.S. embassy roof, Ulevich kept a loaded Polaroid camera at hand at all times, and when a Saigon regular, a visitor or a newcomer entered the bureau, he asked them to pause long enough for a photo. Here, in the crisply exposed black and white images are the faces of more than 200 people, from the famous to the virtually forgotten, who worked at or visited AP Saigon during those last four years of the war. The faces are remarkably revealing of their subjects — mostly sober, some smiling, a few self-consciously mugging — and all enhanced by what Ulevich calls the “soft window light” of the bureau photo office where most of them were taken. (A few shots were made in Phnom Penh and Vientiane.) Predictably, some of Ulevich’s impromptu subjects wondered whether he was making photos for their obituaries. One female freelancer said of her Polaroid image: “bloody awful. I’ll have to live.”

Indeed, for the book’s cover, Ulevich chose a haunting image of Michel Laurent, a French photographer who first covered Vietnam for AP and returned in 1975 with the Gamma agency, only to be killed two days before Saigon fell. He was the last of 75 journalists who perished or vanished during 10 years of the “American war” in Indochina. Among the more than two dozen people in the book who have since died, Laurent is one of two lost in the war. The other is Japanese photojournalist Taizo Ichinose, who disappeared in Cambodia in November 1973. On inside pages the subjects range from such noted war reporters as Peter Arnett, Keyes Beech and Neil Sheehan, to lesser known professionals, novices and newcomers, from 18 countries.

Horst Faas, the architect of the AP photo operation that earned four of the news agency’s six Pulitzer prizes in Vietnam (including Faas’s own), is one of several entitled to his own page in the book. Others include Sydney Schanberg of “Killing Fields” fame; the late, fondly-remembered Hugh Van Es, whose UPI shot of fleeing Vietnamese climbing a ladder to a U.S. helicopter bookended the war with Malcolm Browne’s AP photo of a burning monk 12 years earlier; photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, and even “gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson, posing with his Uncle Duke sunglasses and cigarette holder.

As Ulevich says in the book’s spare text, “a bond of experience ties us, the living and the dead, as the Indochina war recedes from memory.” The picture-taking being a random process, the author doesn’t claim to have snapped everyone possible. Some subjects he simply missed; in making digital scans in the 1990s he found some photos had faded.

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