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Boy Destroying Piano, Wales, 1961
Philip Jones Griffiths
Soldier Seen Through Shield, Northern Ireland, 1973
Philip Jones Griffiths
Philip Jones Griffiths was a Welsh photojournalist, respected for his war reportage. Griffiths was born in 1936 in Rhuddlan, Flintshire, North Wales and was raised as a native Welsh speaker. He went to Liverpool University to study pharmacy before working as the night manager of the Piccadilly branch of Boots, whilst also finding work as a part-time photographer for the Manchester Guardian.
In 1961 Griffiths started working as a freelance photographer for the Observer and in 1962 went to cover the Algerian War. Travelling further on assignment, he went to Rhodesia, Israel, Zambia and Northern Ireland. His photographs of Jackie Kennedy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, gained attention from the American press and allowed him to fund the Vietnam War project for which he would become best known. In 1966 he travelled to Vietnam, assigned with the Magnum Photo Agency. During his time in Vietnam, Jones Griffiths lived with soldiers and civilians and photographed the horrors faced by soldiers in action and the civilians up-routed by the conflict. He described Vietnam as a country where “a mechanised monster had despoiled an innocent landscape”.
Jones Griffiths published his photographs of Vietnam in Vietnam Inc. (1971). The photobook has become a seminal work of photojournalism in being one of the most detailed accounts of any conflict ever made. Courting controversy in its frank depictions of the war, his worked was criticised by the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, who said “let me tell you there are many people I don’t want back in my country, but I can assure you Mr Griffiths’ name is at the top of the list”. However, the book was important in changing public attitudes in the United States towards the war as it brought attention to the plight of the Vietnamese population. Speaking about Vietnam Inc., Noam Chomsky would later say “if anybody in Washington had read that book, we wouldn’t have had these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”.
Jones Griffiths went back to Vietnam and Cambodia in 1980, when few Western journalists had been to the country since the fall of Saigon in 1975 and hardly any had been allowed into Cambodia since the Vietnamese had overthrown the Khmer Rouge. He documented the long-lasting effects of the war in images of deformed babies born to those exposed to Agent Orange and crippled former military personnel. From 1980 to 1985 he was the president of Magnum Photos, keeping the post for a record five years.
Jones Griffiths left a lasting legacy on photojournalism. His hero, Henri Cartier-Bresson, said “not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths”. In 2001 he launched a foundation to preserve his archives and in 2015 the National Library of Wales acquired the entire collection of 150,000 slides and 30,000 prints. Griffiths died in 2008, aged 72.