Picturing the Apocalypse
One day in 1992, Tim Page got in touch with Horst Faas. He had a bunch of photographs he wanted to show him.
Both men were veteran war photographers although, in other respects, they were radically different. Page, younger than Faas by a decade, had revelled in both the spiritual and pharmaceutical excesses of the 1960s. He had stumbled into picture-taking at the end of a crazily eventful road trip that ended in Laos when his funds ran out. He discovered more or less by accident that he had a knack for composing pictures when he picked up a camera. That knack led him to neighbouring Vietnam where he was fearless to the point of recklessness when following the troops. He was famously the model for the Dennis Hopper character in the film, Apocalypse Now. Exuberant and a little mad.
Faas belonged to a different generation. He was a child in Germany during the Second World War, had experienced bombing from the point of view of those on the ground looking up, and had acquired fortitude and survival skills of a high order. He served an apprenticeship in photography in Germany, tried a stint on London’s Fleet Street, and then was sent as a staff photographer with the Associated Press first to Algeria and then to the Congo. The African assignment was a bloody one. Faas thrived in it, however, snapping, among other notable pictures, the last known image of nationalist hero Patrice Lumumba before he was killed. Faas was subsequently dispatched to Laos and, from there, to Saigon, where he set up shop as the AP’s photo editor. He remained a fixture there for most of the war.
It was almost twenty years later that Page approached Faas with his sheaf of photographs. He was just back from a trip to Hanoi where he had purchased them for about a dollar apiece. The North Vietnamese, he said, were talking about their photographers and about the many who had lost their lives. Faas looked at the pictures, thought about it, and said, “Page, let’s do a book on the dead from the other side and from our side. But all of them, Vietnamese included.” And this was the origin of Requiem,* one of the most beautiful and moving collections of war photographs ever compiled.
Getting it published turned out to be easy. Getting enough copies printed and distributed, not so much.
Faas knew Harold Evans from time spent in London, after the Vietnam War, when Faas was editor of AP’s picture section and Evans was editor of the Sunday Times. They had established a friendly relationship: Evans took pictures seriously (he was the author of a book on their use in newspapers, Pictures on a Page, among other publications) and he demanded, and Faas was happy to supply, the best of AP’s stock. By the time Page and Faas came up with their idea for Requiem, however, Evans had moved on to become president of Random House in New York. Faas called him up.
Evans asked what he had in mind. Faas told him. Evans said, “I have no time for that now but come to New York on Friday afternoon.” It was Wednesday. Faas jokes that for the first time in his life—he was a journalist, after all—he paid full price for an airline ticket. When they met in New York, Evans still was pressed for time.
They talked in the corridor and Evans agreed to do it. He passed the word on to his colleagues. “I want you to plan it big!” he told them. “You do this book big. You understand, big!” And then he left it to Faas to explain what he had in mind.
“I faced all the other grey suits at Random House,” Faas remembers, “and they all said ‘Oh, Vietnam! What a bore!’ But Harry breezed in once more and said ‘How far have you gotten with Horst? I want him to go back to London and take care of his shop’ [meaning AP] and they all said, ‘Well, we don’t think we can do more than 7,000 copies. And Harry said, no, I told you, we do it big…’”
The book was published in 1996. There was a launch party in Washington, D.C. where they sold one hundred copies and then ran out. “We could have sold three hundred,” says Faas. The trend was established: all through the fall, the book attracted phenomenal media attention and appreciative reviews. Long before Christmas, it was impossible to find a copy. Someone at Random House had listened to the suits’ assessment of the book’s prospects rather than to Harry Evans. Eventually it was reprinted—and continued to sell.
The act of remembering affected both photographers and led directly to other projects. Faas says he had tried to put the war behind him but work on Requiem seems to have changed all that. He embarked on a mission with reporter Richard Pyle to find out where the helicopter carrying a number of his colleagues, including the Englishman, Larry Burrows, and French-born Henri Huet, had crashed. It had gone down at the time of the Cambodian incursion in 1971. Page, who had never let go of the war, set out on a similar journey, to find traces of two American photographers, Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, who also had disappeared.
Reporters don’t have to be where the action is in order to write up the story: they just have to talk to the soldiers afterward. It’s different for the men and women behind the cameras. Both Tim Page and Horst Faas were severely wounded in Vietnam. They were lucky. One hundred and thirty-five photographers from all sides died from the war’s beginnings in the mid-1950s until the final withdrawal in 1975. It’s easy to understand why, for years, Faas wanted to forget about the war. And easy to understand why he was so affected by the photographs Page found in Hanoi. Some of what both men must have felt is palpable in the images included in Requiem. The photographers’ courage and skill, and the pain they witnessed and endured are implicit on every page.
The book is a reminder of all that and something more. An attentive reader can’t help but notice with head-shaking wonder that the war the photographers showed us was monstrous, horrible, intricate and sometimes shockingly beautiful. It’s tough to look at, and even tougher to turn away.
*Horst Faas and Tim Page (eds), Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina (Random House, 1996)