The death on May 10 of legendary Associated Press photographer and editor Horst Faas prompted hundreds of comments and recollections from his colleagues and friends with a common theme, calling Faas a generous man of considerable humor and even greater brilliance, a photographer of polished talent, a superb journalist of memorable courage in combat. It was that same courage that sustained Faas in his final years as he coped with the paralysis resulting from a spinal hemorrhage. Through it all, his spirit never failed him.
Horst Faas and I shared a close friendship and working relationship for 50 years, regardless of the distance that separated us. I can attest to the qualities others have cited and can add, without qualification, that Faas was a brilliant editor and manager in AP’s far-flung international photo network. He saw himself as a journalist who worked with pictures rather than words. His picture journalism was superb, but he would have been just as successful had he worked in words only. Horst Faas was a great photographer because he was a great reporter.
Faas is known best for his signature photography of the war in Vietnam, where he spent more than eight years and saw more action than most who served in the military. He was among the first to show, through his compelling photographs, the terror of guerrilla war. His early images reflected primarily a South Vietnamese army at war with a Vietnamese enemy. His photographs of combat action, vicious battlefield interrogations and the exhausted troops, who fought the jungle as well as the Viet Cong, captured an essence of the war that was previously lacking in news coverage.
Faas was always close to the action. In one of his incredible images viewers can literally look into the eyes of an attacking Viet Cong across an all-too-narrow no man’s land at the 1964 battle of Dong Xoai. That photo was among his work that earned him the first of two Pulitzer Prizes.
Faas’ camera work was clear and precise, telling us a story.
He frequently turned his lens toward the civilians who, in Vietnam, were so often caught in the murderous crossfire of opposing forces. His images showing a grief-stricken father holding his child’s lifeless body, seemingly pleading with South Vietnamese Rangers, and the stark juxtaposition of children riding home from school past the bodies of dead Viet Cong offer a sense of the everyday reality—and inhumanity—of life in a war zone.
Faas understood photography’s influence and he knew what his camera could do.
His grasp of the nature of war combined with his extraordinary photographic talent delivered images of lasting impact. His pictures were not captured accidentally.
As the face of the war turned more American in later years, his pictures, often splashed across the front pages of American newspapers and magazines, portrayed Vietnam’s brutality in a way not seen in previous wars—including the severely wounded American soldiers torn by the shot and shell of combat.
His signature photography, however, was only part of his persona.
Faas was a Renaissance man, a student of history and the arts, a collector of Asian antiquities, a conversationalist and raconteur. He enjoyed a bottle—or two—of good wine and a fine meal with friends. Some of his photos display a delicate touch: capturing the morning sunlight streaming through jungle foliage or the silhouette of men crossing an arched bridge.
His lesser-known contributions came from the prodigious talent he brought to AP’s picture operations, a talent that reached beyond his camera. His management skills, demonstrated in Vietnam, were persistent, consistent and insistent at his later posting in London where he managed European, Middle East and Africa coverage.
But it was his Vietnam experience that forged lifelong bonds with his colleagues. With Tim Page, Faas produced Requiem, a stunning book and exhibition of photographs made by photojournalists who died while covering both the French and American wars in Vietnam. Faas and AP correspondent Richard Pyle spent decades locating the crash site that killed four photographer friends in Laos, a mission that resulted in their book, Lost Over Laos. And Faas was also a major contributor to a French book of images by Henri Huet, whom Faas considered to be the best of the Vietnam photographers.
The Faas legacy, in part, is the accumulated record of the history he reported. Beyond that, however, is the remarkable standard he set for new generations of journalists that says: Tell the world what happened in an instant of time at a special place, and tell it simply and accurately.
Horst Faas was the quintessential journalist.
“We never tried to influence the war,” he said once. “We simply showed it as it was.” And to do that, Faas risked his life, time and again, alongside soldiers and Marines in the line of fire.
Journalist David Halberstam shared a long bond with Faas that began well before Vietnam when they covered the war in the Congo, and continued when they shared a Saigon apartment. Halberstam said of Faas: “Almost nothing he did was the product of chance. It was rather the product of intense diligence, exceptional preparation, and uncommon sacrifice.”
Never cynical, but always skeptical, Faas was forever searching for the correct approach, the most telling image, whether it came from his camera or from those of the shooters he nurtured and encouraged.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.