A prolific photojournalist, the self-taught EDDIE ADAMS has photographed over 13 wars in the course of a career that has spanned more than 40 years. Although it is specifically these war-related photographs that have earned him international renown as well as hundreds of awards including a 1969 Pulitzer Prize, Adams’s oeuvre also includes portraits of numerous American presidents, foreign leaders of state including Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro, celebrities such as Louis Armstrong and Clint Eastwood, and anonymous figures around the world. Adams’s photos have regularly appeared in such newspapers and magazines as Time, Newsweek, Life, Paris Match, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and Stern, and he has also done commercial, fashion, and advertising photography for numerous corporate and private clients.
Adams is probably best-known through his Pulitzer Prize winning photograph he took in February 1968, while stationed in Saigon as a member of the Associated Press. The image depicts the American-educated and trained Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan (then South Vietnam’s National Chief of Police) in the act of executing a Viet Cong prisoner who had just been apprehended for murdering several of Nguyen Ngog Loan’s men. Graphic and violent, this photograph was published on the front page of the New York Times and, along with the NBC film of the same event, is credited with having provoked the civilian outrage that lead to massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War and quite possibly to President Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection. Since then, the image (along with Nick Ut’s photograph of a naked girl fleeing her napalmed village) has been reproduced so frequently that it has come to serve as synecdoche for the entire Vietnam War, and stands as Adams’s most significant photograph.
The image of the Viet Cong prisoner’s execution has also played an important role in the decadeslong debate regarding the risks and values of war photography. Without images like this one, some have argued, the horrors of war would remain invisible to the public far away from the fighting and might therefore be taken less seriously. Yet others contest that contemporary war depends on the very possibility of photographic exposure and that egregious acts of violence are committed as a result of this publicity. For instance, it has been argued that Nguyen Ngoc Loan was only interested in publicly assassinating the Viet Cong prisoner because there were AP press corps there to capture the image. For him, the photographic evidence of the execution was meant to teach the Viet Cong what would happen to their forces if caught. In this sense, the image represents a staged event as much as it represents a document of truth, thereby putting into question the unmitigated truth-value of photography.
Adams is also well known for his photographic essay of South Vietnamese refugees entitled The Boat of No Smiles. It is often suggested that Congress circulated copies of this series of touching photographs in order to raise support for an amendment to current immigration law that would allow President Carter to allow 200,000 South Vietnamese refugees the right to come to the United States.
Born in Pennsylvania, Adams enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps during the Korean War. Selftaught in photography, he began working as a photojournalist for the Associated Press in 1961. Assignments in the 1960s and 1970s took him to Vietnam, Cambodia, Africa, and other international hot spots. In the 1980s and 1990s he has served as a special correspondent for Parade magazine, shooting numerous covers for that publication. Beginning in 2000, Adams embarked upon a project to travel the world photographing important advocates of human rights. In 2002, he published these photos, along with interviews conducted by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo in a Random House book entitled Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Changing Our World.
Adams’s contribution to twentieth century photography also includes his work at Barnstorm: the EDDIE ADAMS Workshop, a tuition-free training camp he started in Jefferson, New York in 1988. Intended for ambitious student photographers interested in a hands-on opportunity to work with leaders in their field, the workshop has become very prestigious and is notoriously difficult to get into. Its importance in training a new generation of photojournalists will be seen as the twenty-first century unfolds.
See also: War Photography