PJGX presents photographs from the two important bodies of work that represent Philip’s archive – the Viet Nam war and Britain in the 1950s to 70s. In 1971 he published his first book, the ground-breaking Viet Nam Inc, which cemented his reputation as both a fiercely intelligent and astute photojournalist. It led Henry Cartier-Bresson, one of Philip’s heroes and founders of Magnum to comment "Not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths." The book had a huge impact in turning people’s opinion against the war and the US involvement in Viet Nam. Carefully considered and captioned with a scathing dry commentary, this was ‘war photography’ but in a very different sense, as the journalist and film-maker John Pilger wrote on Philip’s death in 2008: “No photographer produced such finely subversive work, knowing that truth in war is always subversive.” John had been reporting on the war in Viet Nam at the same time as Philip and recalls:
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.
Philip cared deeply for Viet Nam, its country and its people. He was proudly Welsh yet grew up in the shadows of English castles. He knew what it was like to be the under-dog, and recognised imperialist forces at play immediately in Viet Nam. He returned year after year long after the war had ended to visit the country that had captured his heart and soul. It was nearly three decades later that he published Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Viet Nam. This was even more vehemently ‘war photography’ of a different sense. The toxic chemical in Agent Orange that had been dropped by the US on Vietnamese and Cambodian soil to defoliate the landscape and reveal the enemy, was also responsible for horrific congenital deformities, still affecting children born today. Viet Nam Inc. had been republished in 2001 with a foreword by Noam Chomsky, who observed: “If anybody in Washington had read that book, we wouldn’t have had these wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.” But who would publish these disturbing new images from Viet Nam, a generation after the war had ended? It was around this time that Philip met Gigi Giannuzzi, the founder of Trolley Books, and he discovered not only a publisher but a kindred spirit, someone who was not afraid to make a book of such difficult-to-look-at work. As Gloria Emmerson wrote in her text for the book: ‘To turn away is to compound the crime.’ It was the beginning of an enduring friendship and working relationship, and two more books followed, Viet Nam at Peace in 2005 and Recollections in 2008, published a few months after Philip’s death.
Despite his seminal book on the Vietnam War, Philip hated to be described as a war photographer. His 50 year archive is rich with stunning photojournalism from over 100 countries around the world. Shortly before his death, a chance rediscovery of old work from The Observer instigated an exhibition and a new publication (Recollections), comprising many previously unseen images from Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. His often wry observations created a backdrop of social and political commentary during a time of great change and upheaval in the country – from the Beatles in Liverpool, politicians, artists and actors to CND protests on the streets and the conflict in Northern Ireland, Recollections was a timely reminder of Philip’s unique viewpoint on the world, no matter where he was. As Tony Benn wrote to him the week before he died: “Recollections will rank, I think, alongside your Vietnam pictures... It must be some comfort to you to know that your work will outlast all the speeches and posturings of politicians with their spin doctors, and will reveal more about the arguments of our times, than you can get from leading articles, or BBC programmes.”
As well as his images, Philip’s words always gave a crucial insight, and showing in the exhibition is a filmed interview that Philip gave in Aberystwyth in 2007 at the University of Wales. It is followed by a recent award-winning documentary (a co-production between Welsh company Rondo Media, S4C and South Korean production company, JTV, Jeonju Television) which features interviews with John Pilger, Don McCullin and Noam Chomksy among others.