Book Review: The Polaroid Portraits, Indochina 1972-1975
THE POLAROID PORTRAITS, INDOCHINA 1972-1975
by Neal Ulevich
Nobody really knows how many journalists covered the war in Vietnam from 1961 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, but it is likely that most of them visited the Saigon bureau of the Associated Press at some point.
"AP Saigon" was more than just a signoff on the wire. Like its competitors UPI and Reuters, AP was a vital source of real-time information and support for other members of the Saigon press corps.
For some resident correspondents, the AP bureau on the fifth floor of the Eden Building overlooking Lam Son Square was a daily stop for coffee, conversation and a look at the world and Vietnam news clipboards. Visiting journalists called on AP for help in developing and transmitting pictures to their home offices, and it was the first place that many newcomers came to for advice after dropping their gear at the Continental or Caravelle hotel.
Neal Ulevich's The Polaroid Portraits, Indochina 1972-1975 is a unique record of these pilgrimages. A former AP staff photographer, Ulevich worked in Indochina and later in Thailand, China and Japan, where he was a member of the FCCJ.
Between 1972 and April 1975, when he left Vietnam aboard an evacuation chopper from the U.S. Embassy's roof, Ulevich always kept a loaded Polaroid camera at hand. His crisply exposed black-and-white images present the faces of more than 200 people—from the famous to the virtually forgotten – that worked at or passed through AP Saigon during those last years of the war.
The faces are remarkably revealing – mostly sober, some smiling, a few self-consciously mugging – and all enhanced by what Ulevich calls the "soft window light" of the bureau photo office where most of them were taken. Predictably, some of Ulevich's impromptu subjects wondered whether he was making photos for their obituaries. One female freelancer said of her Polaroid image: "Bloody awful. I’ll have to live."
And Ulevich did choose a haunting image for the book's cover, of Michel Laurent, a French photographer who first covered Vietnam for AP and returned in 1975 with the Gamma agency, only to be killed two days before Saigon fell. He was the last of 75 journalists who perished or vanished during the decade-long "American war" in Indochina. An other was Japanese photojournalist Taizo Ichinose, who disappeared in Cambodia in November 1973.
The subjects range from such noted war reporters as Peter Arnett, Keyes Beech and Neil Sheehan, to lesser known professionals, novices and newcomers, from 18 countries. Horst Faas, the architect of the AP photo operation that earned four of the news agency's six Pulitzer prizes in Vietnam – including Faas's own – is one of several earning a full page in the book.
Others include Sydney Schanberg of Killing Fields fame; the late, fondly-remembered Hugh Van Es, whose UPI shot of fleeing Vietnamese climbing a ladder to a U.S. helicopter book-ended the war with Malcolm Browne's AP photo of a burning monk 12 years earlier; and even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, posing with his Uncle Duke sunglasses and cigarette holder.
Along with working correspondents and photographers, Ulevich's portraits include technicians, office employees, soldiers, aid workers, a peace activist, a round-the-world bicyclist and the AP's cleaning lady. Toward the end of this 80-page book, even the bad guys show up – six members of the North Vietnamese delegation based at Saigon's airport after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. And as if to fulfill the widely held belief that the Saigon press corps was salted with spies, there is Ky Nhan, a former AP photo stringer who was later found to be a secret cadre for the Viet Cong.
The Polaroid Portraits may be of greatest interest to aging war correspondents wanting to remember how they and their colleagues looked in their professional heyday. As Ulevich says in the book's spare text, "A bond of experience ties us, the living and the dead, as the Indochina war recedes from memory."
The pictures were taken at random, and the author doesn't claim to have snapped everyone possible. Some subjects he simply missed, and while making digital scans in the 1990s he found some photos had faded.
It's unfortunate that the inspiration didn't strike Ulevich, or someone else, years earlier when hundreds more journalists were covering the story. For all the unfettered, censorship-free access the press enjoyed in Vietnam, no single comprehensive record exists of all those reporters, photographers, cameramen, freelancers and wannabes that passed through Saigon. The best we have is a final and symbolic "Polaroid Portrait" – a ghostly collage of every photo in the book. ❶