Philip Jones Griffiths

It was reported today that one of the great photojournalists, Philip Jones Griffiths, has died.  He was born in Rhuddlan, near Rhyl and studied pharmacy in Liverpool before moving to London where he worked as a part-time photographer for the Manchester Guardian. He started work as a full-time freelance photographer in 1961 for the Observer, travelling to Algeria in 1962.

Griffiths arrived in Vietnam in 1966, working for the Magnum agency.  Of the image above, shot in 1967, he wrote:

This was a village a few miles from My Lai. It was a routine operation – troops were on a typical “search and destroy” mission. After finding and killing men in hiding, the women and children were rounded up. All bunkers where people could take shelter were then destroyed. Finally the troops withdrew and called in an artillery strike on the defenseless inhabitants.

Liverpool school outing: a group of school children and their teacher waiting to board a bus 1952.
Liverpool school outing: a group of school children and their teacher waiting to board a bus 1952.

John Pilger wrote in tribute to Philip soon after his death: “I never met a foreigner who cared as wisely for the Vietnamese, or about ordinary people everywhere under the heel of great power, as Philip Jones Griffiths. He was the greatest photographer and one of the finest journalists of my lifetime, and a humanitarian to match…. His photographs of ordinary people, from his beloved Wales to Vietnam and the shadows of Cambodia, make you realise who the true heroes are. He was one of them.”

On the Magnum website there is this tribute from fellow-photographer, Stuart Franklin:

The world that I grew up in will be, from today, a poorer place. It is with great sadness I have to write that Philip – a monumental, irrepressible force in photography and in life – and a courageous fighter against the cancer that finally defeated him – passed away early this morning.

Philip’s passing is an enormous loss to us all at Magnum, and I am sure to everyone who knew him. It was a privilege to have brushed, even lightly, against his charm, his brilliance and his passion for photojournalism. Those who only know him through his work will have missed his skills as an orator, raconteur, wit and polemicist. He remained the lovely man that he was – graceful and welcoming – especially to young people trying to make a start in photography. He had much to pass on, not just about the importance of “real” photography, but about the art and craft of picture-making.

Philip was born in Rhuddlan, near Rhyl in Wales on 18th February 1936 and it was there, at the age of 16, that he learnt an early lesson about photography – from Henri Cartier-Bresson: “The first picture of his I ever saw was during a lecture at the Rhyl camera club. I was 16 and the speaker was Emrys Jones. He projected the picture upside down. Deliberately, to disregard the subject matter to reveal the composition. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.”

It was Philip’s consummate skill as a picture maker, carefully able to draw the viewer closer and closer to his subjects through his emotionally-charged compositions that lent such power to his work. Philip was always concerned with individuals – their personal and intimate suffering more than any particular class or ideological struggle. And the strength of his vision, that inspired so many of us, led Henri Cartier-Bresson to write of Philip: “not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths.”

Philip’s iconic work on the Vietnam War, an unprecedented work, published in 1971 under the title ‘Vietnam Inc.’ is arguably the most articulate and compelling anti-war statement made by any photojournalist ever. Indeed it led Noam Chomsky to comment that: “If anybody in Washington had read that book, we wouldn’t have had these wars in Iraq or Afghanistan”.

Indeed, it was Philip’s passion for peace that led to greatness in his later work. In 2005 he published “Viet Nam at Peace” a 25 year study exploring the long term consequences of the war. The first Westerner to travel by road from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City after the war, and later the Ho Chi Minh trail, he amassed an unparalleled photographic record of the post-war transformation of this country.

Thoroughly industrious and tenacious to the end, Philip had just completed a new book of his less known studies of British life in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, entitled ‘Recollections’, and in the last few weeks before his death, Philip became thoroughly engaged in compiling his life’s work documenting Cambodia.

Philip enriched all our lives with his courage, his empathy, his passion, his wit and his wisdom; and for many he gave to photojournalism its moral soul. He died as he wanted so passionately that we should live – in peace. In his last days he was together with his loving family and friends at his side.

Philip Jones Griffiths and his daughter at an anti-Iraq war protest in New York 2003
Philip Jones Griffiths and his daughter at an anti-Iraq war protest in New York 2003

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