The Vietnam War, or the world’s perception of it, changed dramatically 50 years ago when Malcolm Browne photographed the self-immolation of monk Thich Quang Duc and successfully transmitted the image out from the heavily censored war zone. An exhibition to honor the courageous journalism of Malcolm on this anniversary was held at the Associated Press in NYC this week and I was privileged to be invited.
It was remarkable to be in the company of so much vital history and some of the people who contributed to it. Fortunately one of these had the foresight ten years ago, when the headquarters of AP was moved from the Rockefeller Center to West 33rd Street, to collect documents and photographs and establish a permanent archive for the agency. So 165 years of news and the work of it’s messengers have been recorded for posterity.
The Unquiet American: Malcolm Browne in Saigon, 1961 – 65, tells the story of the time in a very direct, almost personal, way. To be able to read his notes, see his original contact sheets and have such an emotional insight into the events of the time was remarkable. Groups of older journalists gathered around photographs to identify and look to recognize the participants. One of these, a photograph of the regular press briefing sessions called Five O’clock Follies ( because so much of the information released was deliberate misinformation ) was apparently the only known photograph of that event. Censorship was a huge hurdle Browne had to deal with – along with the challenge to stay alive – to tell the stories as he saw them. And it was because of his intuition and the trust he had with the Buddhist monks that Browne was the only reporter there on that day in June 1963 for the event that changed the world’s perception of the war, and coincidentally won him the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
Malcolm Browne’s job was to get the news and pictures back, which he did. When he finally left Vietnam it was with his beautiful wife Le Lieu, but that’s another story…