Eddie Adams (1933–2004) is best known for his Pulitzer prize–winning photograph of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a Vietcong prisoner during the Vietnam War. The accomplishment established Adams early in his career as one of the United States' foremost photojournalists, although he later earned accolades for his work in fashion photography and advertising. He contributed to several of the "Day in the Life" series of photography books, including the popular Day in the Life of America, and founded the Eddie Adams Workshop for aspiring photojournalists.
Photograph Credited with Changing Views on War
Adams was born to Edward and Adelaide Adams on June 12, 1933, in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. He developed his interest in photography while still a teenager, and served on the photography staff of his high school newspaper. He also worked as a wedding and portrait photographer. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, where he spent three years as a combat photographer during the Korean War. After leaving the Marines, Adams joined the staff of The Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia, where he worked from 1958 until 1962, at which time he became a photographer for the Associated Press (AP).
In 1965, Adams and his friend, United Press International (UPI) photographer Dirck Halstead, both decided they wanted to travel to Vietnam to photograph the war there, according to a reminiscence by Halstead on the Digital Journalist website. "Sometime in the middle of an alcoholic haze, we came up with the idea that we should go to Vietnam," Halstead recalled. "We agreed on a plan. I would go to UPI and tell them that Eddie had told me he was being assigned to the war, and he would do the same at AP, using me as the bait. It worked like a charm. A month later, Eddie and I were both on China Beach watching as the first waves of U.S. Marines came charging ashore." Adams remained in Vietnam for a year, often serving double–duty as a reporter.
He returned to Vietnam in 1967 and was near the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon on February 1, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year, when the Vietcong launched what came to be known as the Tet offensive. Adams recalled the events of that day to historian Susan D. Moeller, as recounted in an obituary in the London Independent: "NBC heard about a battle taking place in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. Vietcong were inside a Buddhist temple, using that as a cover to shoot into the street and into the South Vietnamese soldiers and police. A small minor battle was going on. So the NBC crew came over and said, 'Anyone want to come?' and I said, 'Why not?' " It was during this battle that Adams snapped his legendary photograph of South Vietnamese Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head in the middle of the street. The photograph was completely uncalculated, Adams told Moeller. Adams and the news crew saw Loan grab the soldier and kept their cameras trained on the pair. "As soon as he went for his pistol, I raised the camera thinking he was going to threaten him," Adams recalled. "I took a picture. That was the instant he shot him. I had no idea it was going to happen. He put the pistol back in his pocket and walked over to us and said, 'He killed many of my men and many of your people.' And walked away."
The photograph appeared in newspapers throughout the world, including on the front page of the New York Times, and the repercussions of the image's wide dissemination—both positive and negative—proved enormous. The photograph immediately established Adams as one of the world's top photojournalists and earned him the Pulitzer Prize for breaking–news photography in 1969. It is also largely credited with turning public opinion against U.S. involvement in the war. "Together with Nick Ut's 1972 image of a naked girl fleeing her napalmed village and Ronald L. Haeberle's color pictures documenting the 1968 My Lai massacre (which were first published in Life in 1969), Mr. Adams' photograph reinforced a widespread belief that the South Vietnamese and American military were doing more harm than good in trying to win the war against an indigenous insurgency and the North Vietnamese army that sponsored it," Andy Grundberg wrote in his New York Times obituary of Adams.
Despite his anti–war views that developed during his time in Vietnam, Adams was never comfortable with the notion that his work had swayed public opinion. "Photographs, you know, they're half–truths," Adams remarked after Loan's death, as quoted by Carl Schoettler in the Baltimore Sun. He was also distressed about the detrimental effects of the photograph on Loan, who became a despised figure both in his home country of South Vietnam and in the United States, where he emigrated after the war. Adams befriended Loan, who died of cancer in 1998, and refused to display the photograph publicly. "General Loan was our guy. We were supporting him. And believe me, the Americans did just as bad things. I just happened to see this and shoot it . . . if you'd just grabbed somebody who'd killed maybe your best friend, how do you know you wouldn't have pulled that trigger yourself?" Adams observed in an interview in the London Independent. "Would I have? I don't know. It's very possible. You know we don't know what we would do. It's war."
Adams has said he was most proud of another Vietnam–based project, a series of photographs of 48 Vietnamese refugees who sailed to Thailand on a 30–foot boat but were denied entrance to the country. The photographs were presented to the United State Congress by the State Department and are widely credited with influencing the United States' decision to shelter as many as 200,000 South Vietnamese refugees. "I would have rather won the Pulitzer for something like that. It did some good and nobody got hurt," Adams later remarked of the series, as quoted by Christopher Reed in an obituary that appeared in The Guardian.
Photographed World Figures, Penthouse Pets
Adams left the Associated Press in 1972 to freelance for Time magazine and returned in 1976 as the organization's first and only special correspondent. A Time assignment to photograph Penthouse magazine's Bob Guccione led to a commission to photograph a series of Penthouse Pets in the 1970s as well. After leaving the AP again in 1980, Adams spent the next two–and–a–half decades as a much sought–after freelance photographer and a special correspondent for Parade magazine, for whom he shot more than 350 covers. He covered 13 wars and shot portraits of such luminaries as Pope John Paul II, Anwar Sadat, Fidel Castro, Mikhail Gorbachev, Indira Gandhi, Deng Xiaoping, Richard Nixon, and George Bush. He also contributed to the popular "Day in the Life" photography book series, including A Day in the Life of America and in 2003, A Day in the Life of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Adams also used his work for charitable purposes. He shot the Parade cover every year for the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon Issue. In 1988, he founded Barnstorm: The Eddie Adams Workshop, a free, four–day intensive for selected aspiring photojournalists staffed by some of the nation's top photographers and journalists and held at Adams' farm in upstate New York. Sometimes, Adams' work spurred others toward charity. A 1995 photograph of a three–year–old child with leukemia, part of a photo essay for Parade on "the most beautiful children in the world," instigated the creation of Project Linus. The organization provides security blankets to children who are seriously ill, traumatized or otherwise in need and has more than 300 chapters worldwide.
Adams also worked for numerous fashion, entertainment, and advertising clients, finding the work a suitable antidote to his war years. "I started photographing celebrities because it takes nothing out of your heart, and it's fun if you can handle the publicists and the people around them," he remarked in an interview in the London Independent. "And the sad thing is you make more money taking pictures of celebrities. Now I'm basically tired of crying. I've had my heart ripped out so many times. My whole life has been hurt."
In May 2004, Adams was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. Following the diagnosis, he continued to work and continue with plans for Barnstorm. In addition, he created a video profile of himself that was featured during the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon to raise awareness of his disease. Adams died on September 19, 2004, survived by his wife Alyssa (Adkins) Adams and their son August, as well as three children from his previous marriage to Ann Fedorchak: Susan Ann Sinclair, Edward Adams II, and Amy Marie Adams.
"Five of his pictures on a single subject told you more than five pictures' worth; the total was always greater than the sum of the parts," former AP photography director Hal Buell remarked after Adams' death, as quoted in News Photographer magazine. "He had a way of taking an idea an editor would suggest and building upon it, making it more than an idea or a suggestion. He made it a picture."
Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2004.
Baltimore Sun, July 29, 1998.
Guardian (Manchester, U.K.), September 22, 2004.
Independent (London), December 12, 1999; September 29, 2004.
New York Times, September 20, 2004.
Digital Journalist, Tribute to Eddie Adams, http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0410/adams–intro.html (November 23, 2004).