Philip Jones Griffiths

Valuing the Good Things

This black-and-white photo from the Vietnam War has been burnt into our collective memory: following a napalm attack, screaming children flee from the place the bomb has hit, one of them a girl who has torn off her burning clothes. The photo by Nick Út triggered a discussion about the meaning and the meaninglessness of war. The Welsh Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths pursued this question further.

Philip Jones Griffiths visited 120 countries in the course of his life. His work as a photojournalist took him to conflict regions such as North and Central Africa, Israel, Cambodia and Iraq. He is best known for his photo book “Vietnam Inc.”, an account of the Vietnam War. Filled with 250 photographs accompanied by his own texts and captions, the book is a testimony to the times. Philip Jones Griffiths spent five years, from 1966 to 1971, in the jungle working on his book with the aim to “lay bare the truth about the war”. He took pictures of the combat and its consequences: soldiers on both sides, fighting, violence and destruction, the victims of war, suffering and mourning. But “Vietnam Inc.” does not just document the war itself; it also shows everyday life in times of war, normality in an abnormal situation. Some pictures show surprisingly harmonious scenes between American soldiers and the local people, especially children.

It was difficult for him to keep his emotions in check, he says. He tried to channel his feelings into his photographs: “I was angry, but my anger had to trigger the camera’s release. I never wanted to take photos that make people turn away and close the book. The pornography of violence is not my thing,” said Philip Jones Griffiths looking back. He wanted his photographs to speak for themselves; he as a photographer wanted his pictures to take front and center: “The only thing that is more important to us photographers than life, sex and everything else is to remain invisible.” Nevertheless, his imagery is unmistakable: with his sense of the photographic “moment”, he managed to create brilliant pictures with a balanced composition even in existential situations.

Philip Jones Griffiths almost died in Vietnam. “Luckily, Vietnamese huts are made of light material,” he comments with a smile on the situation that almost cost him his life: the house from which he was taking photographs was blown up. He never wanted to become an “anti-war celebrity” and talked about Vietnam deliberately, but without indignation or anger. He saw the war as a life experience: “If you know what bad things people are capable of, then you value the good ones even more”.

Biographical information

1938

born in Rhuddlan, Wales

studied pharmacy in Liverpool and worked in London while photographing part-time for the “Manchester Guardian”

1961

became a full-time freelancer for the London-based “Observer”

1962–1971

travelled to Algeria, Central Africa and Vietnam during times of war for documentation purposes

1971

became a full member of Magnum Photos

1973–1977

lived and worked in Cambodia and Thailand

1980

moved to New York

1980–1985

assumed the presidency of Magnum Photos

2008

deceased in London, UK