(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in December 2004)
I had the honor of interviewing Philip Jones Griffiths in his Manhattan studio about four years before he died. Griffiths was battling cancer, but he was hardy and witty. He mentioned that he had two daughters who were 36 at the time. Twins? I asked. No, it was just a good year, he said, meaning that it was two daughters from two different women. Griffiths was still quite the rake and a larger-than-life figure. I asked him how he managed to handle all the darkness he'd seen in a 45-year career. He recounted a story of a party he was at in the 1970s, where a man asked his girlfriend at the time to point out Griffiths in the room. Was it that brooding intellectual against the wall? No, said the girlfriend, it was the man laughing it up, having a lot of beers and trying to put a make on all the pretty women in the room.
Welsh-born photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths has been a member of the Magnum photo agency since 1971, the same year he published “Vietnam Inc.“, his devastating photography book that detailed the American onslaught in Vietnam and its systematic atrocities against civilians. His work is being featured in "Magnum Stories," which chronicles work by 61 of the world's greatest photographers.
Griffiths, 68, has covered numerous conflicts throughout Africa and Southeast Asia. The legendary photographer spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley from his New York City apartment on Magnum and his photo essay on the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1982.
Q. Why did you pick Grenada for your section in Magnum Stories?
A I covered Grenada for Life. My story was done in 12 hours. I was there for 24 hours, but half of it was in darkness. You should be able to get into a situation like that and hit the target. If you were only being a photojournalist to confirm your hypotheses, your prejudices and preconceptions, that would be the most boring thing of all. We (photojournalists) should have the quality of being able to see through the fog, to go to the heart of the matter and to see things quickly. Keeping this in mind, when I went to Grenada, I wasn’t an expert in the fine points of Caribbean politics. You keep your eyes open and you photograph what you see. What I saw was an elephant being used to squash a flea. The whole thing was a fake.
To some extent, there is always the danger of people thinking that I only did Vietnam. On the other hand, Grenada was a nice set of pictures. There is a sort of connection to Vietnam. (President) Reagan said at the time, “Now we can hold our heads up high and overcome our unfortunate experience in Vietnam.”
(Griffiths in Vietnam)
Q. What was the storytelling behind your essay?
A. If there is a subtext to all the work that I’ve done in my life, it is the effects of American consumer capitalism on the rampage. The photo of the soldier demonstrating his digital watch to a kid is an important image to get. Then there is the photo of the dignified man being brought in for interrogation. The ambivalent way that the soldier near him is holding his hand over his face, you can read into it, “Are we making another mistake?” It is the little things like this that make the photos come alive. Then there is the picture of the Special Forces nut. If you take the photo out of context, you could put his photo on the wall of any S&M club.
The Grenadians treated the invading soldiers like strangely dressed tourists. All they’d ever known on the island was to be nice to foreigners, nice to tourists. Life killed the story.
Q. What makes a Magnum photographer?
A. Right now, Magnum is totally fragmented. When I joined, everyone had a curiosity towards the world, and you wanted to see a world that was going in the right direction. As Cartier-Bresson put it so eloquently, when everybody is looking one way, we at Magnum look the other way. You are inclined to distrust authority. What made Magnum Magnum is that they led in every sense of the word. We followed our noses and anticipated what was going to be happening around the world. And that reflects badly on what is happening right now. Some photographers are saying, “In order to sell prints in a gallery, I have to make them artistic.” At least half the lemmings are heading to the abyss.
Q. In your book “Dark Odyssey,” you catalog your photos of war and human misery. Where does this come from?
A. I obviously really don’t know. I am trying to work it out. I am not a dark, brooding person, or at least people tell me I’m not. If one is righting wrongs, how do you do it? You identify wrongs, show them and show solutions. In a very fundamental way, I am from a small Welsh village. Every Sunday, the preacher said, “Remember Boyo, when you leave this world, you leave it a better place.”
To explore a contemporary war, please look at my interview with Nina Berman on "Purple Hearts," her photography book on America's wounded and neglected veterans from Iraq.