One of the true heroes: John Pilger on Philip Jones Griffiths

Philip Jones Griffiths was the greatest photographer and one of finest journalists of his generation. John Pilger remembers.

I would stroll past the Hotel Royale in Saigon and look up at the corner balcony on the first floor and see him there, camera resting on his arm. A greeting in Welsh might drift down. Or his take-off of an insane American colonel we both knew. What was he doing? Best to be patient; but this had gone on for days.

It was 1970 and we were on our first assignment together and at once became friends, talking about the war as surreal, and mostly about the people, whom he loved. He introduced me to "Kim Van Kieu", a deeply touching poem about struggle and sacrifice, with which the Vietnam ese as a nation identify:

It matters little if a flower falls

if a tree can keep its leaves green...


I never met a foreigner who cared as wisely for the Vietnamese, or about ordinary people everywhere under the heel of great power, as Philip Jones Griffiths. He was the greatest photographer and one of the finest journalists of my lifetime, and a humanitarian to match. He died on 19 March.

At the end of that first assignment, he handed me a crumpled brown envelope containing just six photographs. I was aghast - where was the bundle of rolls of film, where were the copious sheets of contact prints over which my picture editor in London would pore? I was puzzled that he had seemed to take so few pictures, though his war-weary Leica seldom left his hand. He watched, puckish, eyes twinkling, as I opened the envelope, then enjoyed my reaction as I examined the contents. Each print was exquisite in the power of its symbolism and true to everything we had seen and talked about, especially the destructive relationship between the Vietnamese and the Americans, the invaded and the invaders.

My favourite was of a large GI in a crowd of busy, opaque Vietnamese faces including a young woman photographed in the act of picking his pocket artfully, elegantly, little finger extended. This was the picture for which he had waited days on the balcony at the Royale. Another was Catch-22 in a single frame - spruce US officers peering at IBM computer printouts which "proved" they were winning the war they were demonstrably losing. It might have been Iraq.

No photographer produced such finely subversive work, knowing that truth in war is always subversive. Also in my brown envelope was the Goya-like picture of a captured NLF (Vietcong) soldier, prostrate, wounded and surrounded in the darkness, yet undefeated in his humanity in a manner his captors did not understand. Philip did.

In 2001, I curated an exhibition at the Barbican of pictures by great photographers I had worked with. Philip's six from the brown envelope occupied one wall and on their own made sense of the longest war of the 20th century. He could write as finely. The pared, darkly ironic captions in his classic work Vietnam Inc include this one, beneath those officers rejoicing in their air-conditioned printouts: "This is the computer that proves the war is being won. Data collected for the Hamlet Evaluation System is analysed to see who loves us. Results on the my-wife-is-not-trying-to-poison-me-therefore-she-loves-me pattern are reliably produced, each and every month."

He liked the soldiers whose photographs he took under fire, in the mud, believing they, too, were victims. "My objective," he said, "was not to allow my positive feelings towards them as individuals to cloud the fact that they were prosecuting a genocidal war." Iraq, he said recently, "is only different because every soldier seems to have a digital camera".

He was the antithesis of the anti-journalist who pretends to be objective while ensuring his or her words remain within the undeclared limits set by authority, whose flattery is reci procated. He believed that no human loss from war or poverty was accidental and that behind each were "those murky forces", as Brecht puts it, of responsible power. His remarkable book on Agent Orange, the chemical that still murders and maims Vietnamese children, shamed those who rarely if ever mention this enduring weapon of mass destruction. His photographs of ordinary people, from his beloved Wales to Vietnam and the shadows of Cambodia, make you realise who the true heroes are. He was one of them.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.