This is one of the most famous photographs from the Vietnam war:
What many people don’t know is that there is also video of this moment in the documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), in which the full incident is shown on camera, complete with the prisoners brains being blown out in a real on-screen death.
Yet, Heart and Minds is considered one of the best documentaries ever made. It’s Oscar-winning and part of the Criterion collection. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has said it’s the film that made him want to make documentaries. Watching it I can understand why. Hearts and Minds is a masterwork.
It was also an influence on my film American Circumcision.
Sometimes those who’ve never been to war will ask war photographers, “how could you just stand there and take pictures of this? Why didn’t you do something?” This of course assumes the photographer could have done something. But even if he did, it wouldn’t fix the larger issue.
In the case of Eddie Adams Pulitzer prize winning photograph “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon,” writer and critic David D. Perlmutter has said that “no film footage did as much damage as AP photographer Eddie Adams’s 35mm shot taken on a Saigon street … When people talk or write about [the Tet Offensive] at least a sentence is devoted (often with an illustration) to the Eddie Adams picture”. That image came to define the Vietnam war, and helped lead to it’s end.
Imagine if Eddie Adams and the NBC TV camera person filming had said that they weren’t going to film because “someone should do something,” and instead threw themselves into the fray to stop a man who had a gun and the backing of the state. First of all – they might have died, and second – not taking that photo would have cost the lives of millions of Vietnamese and Americans due to a much longer war.
Plus, our understanding of that war might have been much weaker. The previous images Americans had of war were from World War II propaganda, which depicts the US military as a heroic force versus an evil enemy. Without our understanding of the Vietnam war, future anti-war movements would have faced much greater resistance. So these images might have even helped prevent future wars through their effect in the American consciousness.
The truth is Eddie Adams and that NBC camera person were doing something – they were filming. And it was the most powerful thing they could have done.
Recently, there was someone who very was upset that I show a circumcision in my documentary American Circumcision. I’m not sure what he was expecting to see in a film called American Circumcision, but this person felt that it was immoral even to film something so graphic. He seemed crazy and unhinged, but I felt the broader question was worth addressing: When it is okay for documentary filmmakers to show graphic images? Is it okay for filmmakers to receive compensation for their work by including those images in a commercial film?
Circumcision is often trivialized as a “little snip” when in fact it is major surgery. Children frequently cry out in pain during the procedure, and sometimes suffer complications or even bleed to death. Many activists have told me that seeing a circumcision for the first time is what made them activists. When I began working on the film, those activists encouraged me to show the procedure, because they felt this issue could best be understood by the raw simplicity of seeing it in it’s graphic nature. I agreed, because I felt that it would be dishonest to make a film about circumcision that did not actually show the procedure.
As for making money from the images – both Eddie Adams and the NBC camera person were paid for their work. Those images were only possible because of a significant financial investment by their company. When they got those images, they were sold to newspapers and broadcast on the news between commercials. You can get them now in a collected book on amazon. Those images brought incredible value to the world, and both men deserve to be well compensated for their significant contribution to human consciousness.
There are nearly 3000 circumcisions a day in America. Doctors frequently charge around $300 per procedure. That means nearly a million dollars a day is made from circumcision – probably more, when you include money made on the equipment used, and foreskins sold as tissue. The idea that you cannot raise money to bring awareness to this issue is part of what perpetuates the practice. Those who practice circumcision have no problem asking for compensation for their efforts. If you believe circumcision is worth ending, then it is worth raising as much money in opposition to it – and it might be worth using some of that money to film one of those 3000 per day to show Americans what is really going on.
Money reveals our values. What value would you put on ending the Vietnam war? What value would you put on the broader culture finally understanding circumcision? These are not intellectual questions, but ones that people reveal their answer to through financial choices. War photographers take pictures of graphic things, because they know that only once you bring awareness to a issue can you change it. I think that’s worth supporting. Do you?
My film American Circumcision is currently on Kickstarter. You can support it here.