“I know how to travel and I know how to take care of myself; to survive and to be able to take pictures. How to befriend people that I may need to photograph. And how not to be noticed and not to get in the middle of things. That’s really the secret of all good conflict photography. Don’t get involved and don’t get mixed up. Don’t get between the groups.” -Horst Faas
Prized for his photojournalism work of the Vietnam War, Horst Faas (1933-2012) created new standards for covering war with a camera. Born in Berlin, Germany in 1933, Faas began his career with the Keystone Agency in 1951. By the young age of 21, he was already covering major events such as the peace negotiations in Geneva in 1954. In 1956, Faas joined the Associated Press, where his reputation as a daring, unflinching war photographer took hold. He was soon assigned to cover war in the Congo and fighting in Algeria.
Editor’s Note: We received some new information from a former colleague of Horst Faas and have included it in this article.
From 1962 to 1974, Faas worked as the chief of The Associated Press’ Southeast Asia bureau where he covered the fighting and mentored dozens of young photographers who were sent out across Vietnam to capture images of the war’s terror and inhumanity. Faas’ own images of wounded U.S. soldiers and blindfolded Viet Cong provided striking visual details of the war’s severity. He spent much of his time in Vietnam working in the field, following troops and Vietnamese civilians who were caught in the middle of the conflict. In a 1997 interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Faas states, “There were no bad photographers around. There was nobody who was in a second category. There’s no room for mediocre talent in situations like this.”
Faas’ stark black and white photographs depict the gritty, almost inhumane outcomes of the Vietnam War. From a Vietnamese soldier walking along a road of corpses to medical teams rushing to save Vietnamese citizens injured by a massive bomb explosion, the photographs showcase a world in chaos. Perhaps in contrast, photos of soldiers resting after a tense night of waiting in an ambush humanizes the war’s combatants. It serves as a reminder to viewers that this person could be a brother, a father, or someone you know, but is trapped in volatile and often fatal war situations.
His coverage of Vietnam won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, but Faas explains that it was self-censorship that allowed him to cover the war the way he did:
“There was self-censorship. I was always tell people that is important. When you’re privileged to be with a group of people who have a difficult job, people who may not be properly prepared for it and they do stupid things as a group, it almost becomes a story because they’re a danger to themselves. A danger because of the war. For instance, blowing up cows with grenades. And you have these terrible pictures of this man doing something very stupid. Should you use it or not? No I will not use it because if you got one psychopath case, one guy who possibly performs for the camera, one idiot. How do you explain this to an American newspaper reader what the boys are doing in Vietnam?”
Throughout the 1960s Faas was exclusively a staff photographer for AP News and operated throughout the Congo, Algeria, Indochina, Europe and Southeast Asia. During his time in Vietnam, Faas was severely wounded by a rocket fragment in 1967; unable to be evacuated, the decision was made that Faas had to be cared for by the military surgeons stationed in Vietnam. The injury would slow him down temporarily (restricting him to crutches for a short time) but Faas would continue to be the Photo Chief for AP in Saigon and go on to cover the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the seizure of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Faas was twice the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize; once in 1965 for one of his images from Vietnam, and again in 1972 for coverage from Bangladesh.
Interestingly, Faas is credited as being one of the first photographers in Vietnam to use a Leica, which enabled the photographer to look forward instead of down. In 1997, he discussed some of the technical aspects of his work with Terry Gross of National Public Radio:
“Well, I wasn’t the first one to use Leica. Larry Burrows, had considerably more Leicas than I had because at the time AP was still working with large-format cameras and I carried one or two of my own Leicas in there. Well, a Leica camera is a camera we can keep both eyes open. You can look for the free eye that doesn’t look to the viewfinder and in all directions. It’s like backwards – and sometimes, you can look for the viewfinder and see your picture. So it may be sports photography or maybe war photography, the Leica camera, at the time, appeared to me like a camera that made it possible that you were at all times aware of things happening around you.
The other wonderful things, the Leica was that you could actually take it apart like a rifle, clean it out, dry it out, put it together again with a set of little screwdrivers and it will work again – something that is impossible with today’s electronic chip cameras.”
Faas retired in 2004, but during his retirement, he organized reunions of the wartime Saigon press corps and ran international photojournalism symposiums. He produced four books on his career and other news photographers, including Requiem, a book about photographers killed on both sides of the Vietnam War. Horst Faas died May 10, 2012 in Munich at the age of 79. He is survived by his wife, Ursula, and his daughter Clare Faas.
If you’d like to see more of Faas’ work, his books are available though Amazon. I’ve compiled a list below to make it easy for you. Each book if filled with truly breathtaking and awe-inspiring photography of real-life events.
Books by Horst Faas:
All images are ©Horst Faas and his estates
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