What You Don't Know About This Photograph Has the Power To Change Opinions

What You Don't Know About This Photograph Has the Power To Change Opinions

This gruesome photograph became pivotal anti-war propaganda that drastically shaped public opinion. The horrific frozen frame depicts a baptismal moment of unwavering distinction, a moment in a time that could not be undone, an elevated wartime tension that could not be unraveled. In this sense, the photograph was successful. It was shocking and characteristic in its ability to drive the anti war movement, protesting against brutality of the Vietnam conflict. But, what you can't see, is enough to change your perspective completely.

The common adage, "a photo is worth a thousand words," is true. You've heard it, as a photographer you live by it, you incorporate it into your work mantra. But what happens when the story a photo tells is different from reality? The image, "Saigon Execution" is an example of this misrepresented story.

This iconic war photo was immediately popularized and used as valuable anti-war propaganda to depict the horrors of war. "Saigon Execution" clearly illustrates a violent moment frozen in time, but the context behind the image is not what it seems. The iconic image won Associated Press photographer, Eddie Adams, a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for Spot News Photography. The image depicts the execution of Viet Cong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém. With a caption of merely "General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon," the scene seems to depict the ruthless execution of a civilian, on a whim, in the streets of Saigon. Greater than an image, is the context. Context is the single driving force of truth past the immediate surface elements of a photograph.

AP Photojournalist, Eddie Adams

Despite assumable context, the "victim" in the photo, is not a civilian. The man being executed is Viet Cong prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém (also known as Captain Bay Lop). Van Lem, or Bay Lop, was an assassin, the leader of a VC death squad who was targeting South Vietnamese officials. Early on the morning of the photograph, Bay Lop had led a unit of VC tanks to attack the Armor Camp in Go Vap. After taking control of the camp, Bay Lop arrested Lt.Col Tuan along with his family. In an effort to gain intelligence from Tuan, Bay Lop tortured, and eventually executed, Tuan. Bay Lop then went on to kill all the members of Tuan's family, to include his 80-year-old mother. Captain Bay Lop was then captured near a mass grave of 34 innocent civilian bodies, leaving little doubt to his involvement in the atrocity. Upon proudly admitting his participation in the horrific war crime, Bay Lop was brought in and promptly executed with the .38 side arm in front of AP photographer Eddie Adams.

I just followed the three of them as they walked towards us, making an occasional picture. When they were close – maybe five feet away – the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture – the threat, the interrogation. But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time…

Eddie Adams, behind his 1969 Pulitzer Image "Saigon Execution"

Adams later commented on his regret of the image. It was immediately adopted to depict ruthless violence and incivility of the South Vietnamese; however, the image, is absolutely contrary. While war is violent and horrific, the actions carried out by Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, were reasonably just. Adams later said in an article in Time, "The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera."

Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two, or three American soldiers?  

Eddie Adams, Pulitzer Prize Winner, AP Photographer

Adams continues to explain his remorse for how the image impacted Loan and his family. When Loan died of cancer in his Virginia home, Adams stated, "The guy was a hero. American should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him."

Following the incident, General Nguyen Loan was injured by machine gun fire leading to the amputation of his leg. Seriously injured and crippled by war, Loan left South Vietnam. During the fall of Saigon in 1975, Loan fled to the United States. Putting the plights of war behind him, starting a new life, Loan opened a pizzeria outside of Washington D.C. In Rolling Valley Mall in Burke, Virginia suburbia, Loan worked until his retirement in 1991 having never fully escape the reputation of Adam's photograph. Adams recalls a bit of bathroom graffiti on one of his last visits to Loan's pizzeria, "we know who you are f****r," a clear message of a misinformed individual.

Loan and his wife at their Pizzeria in Burke, VA


The power of an image can shape minds, change lives and alter political climates. The brutality of war is depicted no matter the context of "Saigon Execution." But if the proper story was represented, would the image have had the impact it did? The story should continue beyond the grainy black and white exposure. According to Adams, photographs are half truths. With only half of the story publicly revealed, there grows an element of moral ambiguity in its propaganda. We continue to see this misuse of media today in the social realm. We continue to see groups use imagery at face value to represent a cause. As consumers, we immediately take, share, like, and promote the media to support our agendas. Maybe, a taking pause could help us learn more about the way the world works. Perhaps a little more research and understanding of the whole story might shape our opinions of the situation completely.

[via War History Online and Cherries - A Vietnam War Novel]

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Great article.

This is why its silly to disqualify someone from a Nat Geo award because they removed a bag from the photo. Images are used to manipulate simply by framing of the lens. Going in close making a protest seem "small" when in fact it takes up 5 blocks or more (wide angle shot). People have filters and during the creation of an image, all your mechinations flow through that filter to create an image.

Jason Hudson's picture

That's a good point!
I heard once that John Edwards made all the photographers get on the ground when we was giving a speech in front of his house. His hope was the low angle would make him seem big and powerful. I always remember that as an example of how scenes in photographs aren't always what they seem. Likewise, these tools can be used for good to dramatically add to an already existing feeling. Moreover, maybe it isn't necessarily the photographic tools and angles that are the culprit but rather the consumer for not digging deeper into the issue and being skeptical of media at face value.

I agree. Photojournalism is a whole other field that demands accurately recording a scene. It's not art, and should not be manipulated.

My point is the same as the article. Things are already manipulated. From the time you compose the picture until its presented to the world, it is manipulated and filtered. Why worry about a bag or a small trivial item when the entire photo is manipulated for political purposes regardless?

Arturo Mieussens's picture

Then why worry about removing the bag?. Call it manipulation or call it a particular point of view of the facts, but as soon as you modify anything, you are no more a witness and your testimony looses all value.

You are making a claim that photographers are witnesses and lose all objectivity once they "manipulate" the image.

I'm saying that no matter what, you cannot be objective and you are not truly a witness no matter how hard you try. The only true "Witness" cameras are the surveillance cameras that don't move. Anytime you move, reframe, darken, lighten, burn in, dodge, etc, you are changing the bias of the photo.

My point is why would removal of a bag matter? You are already introducing bias the moment you pull the button.

Arturo Mieussens's picture

I see your point, and disagree. For me filtering is not the same as constructing. The way I see it is not the same as the way I made it.

At this point I guess we will have to disagree.

From my perspective, filtering and constructing both introduce bias and there is no way to absolutely remove it from photojournalism. PJ photographers and the industry construct funny rules governing how they can shoot their photos but they still violate the thing they seek to abolish. I see it as silly to make a big deal about making an image visually stronger or removing a distracting element that gives the image no meaning under the pretense of eliminating bias.

One reason I would never be a PJ photographer.

Arturo Mieussens's picture

Doctors are human and make mistakes. people die anyway, so why not make people even more sick so the operation is more spectacular and makes the doctor look better?.
Constructing news is for the benefit of the photographer and is not journalism, just as endangering people's health is not medicine. First do no harm (to the facts).

I've been saying that exact thing for ages, but all I ever get in reply is some pithy remark where a PJ will ignore the message and concentrate solely on "you breathed on the scene, thereby changing it". A physicist will tell you the merely observing a scene changes it, haha.

PJ's sure get their backs up quite easily. For a reason, I'm assuming. They are between a rock and a hard place. I could never do their job, and I'd never want to. I'd love to see the photos of journalists who support Trump and those who oppose him. Both sides may indeed honestly feel that they are objectively taking photos, but I will bet money you can often spot who's who. You damn sure can where the editors of the stories published have their ties.

If a scene happened and then somebody turned to the left and you asked them to go exactly back to where they were for a second, that's manipulation and not allowed, but what if that was the only way to accurately convey the context via a photo? Are you better off not having a photo of the event, or is it better to have a different photo that's 'accurate' even though it inaccurately describes the scene? I thought the point was the truth. The point shouldn't be the photo, it should be accurately letting the viewer know what happened. In that case, then 'manipulation' in certain circumstances should be allowed on a case by (slippery slope, I know) case basis.

Nino Batista's picture


Roger Paige's picture

An article worthy of reading. It is always a good thing to know the whole story. Thank you.

Would love to see more stories behind the image like this. Wonderful article.

This is really fascinating. I grew up during that period and remember seeing this picture for the first time very clearly, and the impact it made on my beliefs. The fact that the image doesn't tell the entire story is quite startling. Thank you for telling the whole story.


Rob Mynard's picture

A great article, I had no idea of the story behind the image.
Thanks for writing this.

Simon Patterson's picture

A very interesting article, thanks for writing it.

Tony Roslund's picture

I grew up in Burke, VA and often visited Rolling Valley mall. Later relocated to Encinitas, CA. Small world.

What agenda do you believe this diptych is serving?

Funny, I find the Hillary portrait to be far less flattering. It's from a low angle with a double chin and bit of a vampiric expression. Compared to most candid shots in the media, Trump doesn't look bad in this one. Perhaps you're seeing what you want to see?

Or how about the images of Obama that always appear with a "halo" around his head as if he is some kind of savior... LOL.

Korey Napier's picture

Great article! This is definitely a story that needs to be told. A vast majority of videos and pictures we see passed around today on social media are never in the right context, yet people take it and run. I've never been a big believer in "describing your photograph" because pictures should speak for themselves, BUT this article is a great reminder that often times context NEEDS to be given to better understand what you are looking at. Pictures speaking for themselves isn't always a good thing.

Excellent work, Jason! While I've certainly seen this photo before I've never had this context and it changes everything. Even asked some of my colleagues here at work (fellow photographers) if they'd heard this surprising story about Eddie Adams' photograph and none of us ever knew. I definitely agree the stigma of this still image needs to be reversed, and this story shared.

It's not everyday I learn something I thought I knew, that turned out to be 100% untrue, and I love being pleasantly surprised here. Thanks again for sharing this.

But why, as a photographer yourself, had you seen the photo so many times and not stopped to read the caption that went with it? This photo has NEVER, to my knowledge, been held forth by a reputable news organization as a photo of a soldier shooting an innocent civilian. If all you're doing is looking at the photo, you're missing the context. Always.

Well that's a fair question, but I think you've read too much into my comment. I haven't seen it "so many times," as you said, it may have actually been just two or three times, a decade ago in high school--long before I learned to appreciate images of this caliber anyhow.

Since I'm also not formally trained in photography, or particularly into war photography, I have neither the exposure to the history of images like this that one might get from a classroom setting, nor would I have sought out the image to learn more about it back then either.

You know as well as I do that we see /a lot/ of images on a daily/monthly/yearly basis and since this was not one I was particularly interested in I couldn't tell you who shot it or what the story was behind it, before Jason's article.

Even the photographer himself wished he'd done more to share the context of the image before it ruined General Nguyen Ngoc Loan's reputation. I totally agree with you that context is important, I just can't remember the context of every photo I've seen and am just thankful to have gained more with this article.

I understand the criticism and power of propaganda in photography. But I am kind of bewildered I am reading this on Fstoppers. It does not change any perception I had, because the only perception I had was that war is horrible, period. And I'm equally surprised by your calling extrajudicial summary executions "reasonably just". That's a bold political statement for a photography site.

The resulting actions brought on by the single photo "turning the tide" in the war may well have cost millions their lives. From everything I've read about Vietnam war, we were winning and close to victory. Tet was a huge failure for the VC but yet they still won because of media propaganda.

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