VINTAGE GEMS Amanda Hopkinson

09/12/2011

Phillip Jones Griffiths: A Final Interview

Philip Jones Griffiths was born in Wales and travelled the world photographing over one hundred major zones ojconjlict over a period oj nearly fifty years. He died at home in London in March 2008. arguably the most famous and the greatest Welsh photojournalist. Primarily known for his unique trilogy of books on the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and his coverage of the world's hottest spots. Jones's early work from Wales and England has recently been published by Trolley Books.

On 24th January 2008, Philip Jones Griffiths sold out London's prestige journalists' venue The Frontline Club to deliver a talk titled 'In the Picture' and to present his Vietnam Trilogy, the books that epitomise - if they do not summarise - his life's work. Having occasional recourse to an oxygen mask, he received a standing ovation and prolonged applause for his lecture, and the courage, enthusiasm and determination demonstrated in its delivery.

A fortnight later I went to interview him in his basement flat near Shepherd's Bush. West London. It seemed an appropriate moment: it was a flat he had bought 'sight unseen" in 1997: had moved into in 2005; and was finally getting thoroughly renovated in the last months of his life. He had returned from New York to London to receive treatment for his advanced canccr, and the flat was busy with young people - helpers and daughters - and a builder, Nigel, who had caused confusion and hilarity on the street by feigning to be his doctor. I had just come off the Cardiff train, and the first questions were from him to me, about how the country was looking, and whether there were signs of spring amid the intermittent snow blizzards.

Always preoccupied by others' origins and cultures, Philip was an essential Welshman. He spoke of hiraeth, yearning homesickness, apparently 'experienced by every Welsh person who doesn't live west of Offa's Dyke'. Then of its complement, hwyl, joy and exuberance, also used as an injunction to have fun'. Yet the trajectory of his life's work followed an old maxim. As Dylan Thomas put it: 'Land of my Fathers,
my fathers can have it!'.

On closer examination. Jones Griffiths acknowledged that Wales is sporadic for inc. Sometimes I go a couple of times a year, sometimes once every couple of years.' Yet Wales imbued every project he undertook in over forty countries, and he never ceased viewing the world from a Welsh - anti-colonialist. David against Goliath - perspective. From his earliest images of children in Pant-y-Waen (once the land's 'most beautiful village') and Laugharne (near to Thomas's boathouse and. at least as importantly, local pub) he had an eye for what once was. yet could be. and had become. Curiously, and partly influenced by the English children evacuated to his home village during the War - whom he called tough and naughty and exciting' - he photographed some of the most depressed quarters of British citics In similar grainy vein. A Liverpool school outing, taken in 1951 when Jones Griffiths was only sixteen, has one of his typically literate and descriptive deep captions: Liverpudlians have always expressed an intensity rarely seen on other faces. When Evelyn Waugh described people like this in his novels he was accused of fantasy.'

Born in 1936 he talked of a happy childhood' as a native Welsh speaker in rural Rhuddan. He described it thus: The only thing I've been afraid of is boredom. 1 was never bored as a child. I collected birds' eggs: shot rabbits with a gun: and had a room full of short wave radio equipment. I had a chemistry lab in the garden and made TNT explosions.' He attended secondary school in Rhyl where he played prop forward in the rugby team - for which his strong, solid build ably suited him - and studied as much as he could, choosing to acadcmisc his scientific interests. This was not entirely easy in the post-war aftermath, where local schools lackcd teachers in core subjects: Only three children went on to do A-levels. I wanted to do chemistry, but the master had suddenly died, and the school was without a lab. Maths with the headmaster was a waste of time.'

Despite the drawbacks, he claimed: To suggest one ever lives in a vacuum is not true. As a child, my father would bring home Picture Post. Illustrated and John Bull. By way of stimulus I had a picture of Hiawatha on my wall. I devoured pictures and they must have influenced me.' I lis sense of the outer world was unexpectedly enhanced when he left school at sixteen and went to work for a chemist in Rhyl, run by a friend of his father's. He later studied pharmacy at Liverpool University, which he said was a euphemism for 'counting pills', which allowed him to transfer to the twenty-four hour Piccadilly branch of Boots the Chemist, on the borders of London's Soho.

At this stage Jones Griffiths was already a practising if not a professional photographer. Since his teens he had started shooting
local weddings at ten shillings a time and submitting copy to the Rhyl Leader. At university he freelanced for The Manchester Guardian and as a cameraman on the northern Granada TV. He was originating stories of his own. in pit villages and village youth clubs, black and white images of the tough and often dispossessed lives of those who were in the never had it so good' land of the 1950s without being of it. But he was also out and about, on the coast and in the mountains. In his words: 'I got all that beautiful landscape stuff out of my system in North Wales and was ready for the rest of the world.' And yes. he always preferred to take 'a picture with people in it'.

At Boots he not only processed other people's films - The first day I saw an image appear in the developer, that was it. I learnt to do what the Boots chemist did every day' - and lovingly arranged copies of The Photography Annual. He also mixed with an entirely different clientele, including junkies and prostitutes - and Dennis Hackett. The Observer picture editor. Jones Griffiths affectionately reminisced about the two years he spent on the magazine full-time as a halcyon period of photojournalism: 'Most people respected the paper. During the week you worked on a story, and on Saturdays you did news. On Sundays the nation judged who was best placed.' Nevertheless he was not entirely seduced by necessarily ephemeral news content: Sure, photojournalism can have an immediate cffcct. It's just that I'm more interested in an historical perspective.'

Hackctt in turn introduced Jones Griffiths to the English photographer Ian Berry, who became a mentor and generously steered him towards publication beyond The Observer Magazine, in such 1960s stalwarts as Town. Queen. Look. Life. McCalls and The Sunday Times and The Neiv York Times.

In 1966. Berry nominated Jones Griffiths for membership of the Magnum photo agency as already operating within its tradition of 'concerned' photography. Jones Griffiths's technique was essentially that of Magnum's founder, Henri Carticr-Brcsson. legendary - among other more salient technical characteristics - for painting his camera white to render it less noticeable. 'I learnt invisibility from the start. In fact, if I describe myself then. I was rather shy. I could be the fly-on-the-wall with a funny box around my neck, and become part of the action without being in it.' More: What photographers want most, even more than sex, is to be invisible. That's true of every photographer in the world - except those who want to be celebrities Ihis emphasis}. It's the passe-partout of the camera, what gets you anywhere you want to slip in.'

Yet. unlike other photographers - including from Magnum - he regarded being a human being' a prerequisite to 'humanitarian'
photography. Saving and helping people comes first. Even if yon have to hold a stretcher up with your left hand to shoot with your right.' There is a horrific story of Jones Griffiths, who blamed western regimes not their foot soldiers for the mess in Vietnam, stopping an injured young gunner struggling to tear a tube out of his throat, snapping his wrist to get through the bandages. Both ended up covered in blood, and no photographs were taken.

For any concerned photographer, the 1960s was the decade of Vietnam. And Vietnam was. to Jones Griffiths, one more country where 'a mechanised monster had despoiled an innocent landscape*. It was also the last war where photographers could enter freelance: unlike subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, photographers did not have to be vetted and 'embedded' with the armed forces, a change introduced by the US administration which blamed the press for losing the war at home' by showing what was being done in their name. Jones Grifliths's natural identification with the inhabitants rather than the invaders was exploited to the full. Setting aside the inevitable indignation, lie recalled: 'Life in that little village in Wales set me up rather well for living in Vietnam: keep your mouth shut: look about you a lot: find what you need before you speak. As soon as I got there I was treated with great respect, taken to photograph a grave in the midst of a rice paddy."

The images we most associate with Jones Griffiths arc in the three books he compiled on Vietnam over a period of thirty years. It was a true labour of love and commitment to a distant country where Britain helped the United States to alter the course of its history in such a horrific manner. That lie was even able to follow up Vietnam Inc (1971) with Agent Orange (2003) and Viet Nam at Peace 120051 was largely thanks to the endlessly innovative Gigi Giannuzzi of Trolley Books. Described by Philip as 'Gigi who fell from Heaven*, he has recently posthumously published the early work in Recollections (Trolley. 2008]. Philip was at work on this book when we met. a month before he died, along with planning his Foundation for the Study of War.

Preoccupied that his work should not join others' 'squirreled away* in the States, he determined: 'Magnum will continue to distribute my pictures but I want somewhere to house my library of books, notebooks, contact sheets, a life's collection. I've always been very careful about collecting and cataloguing.' Indeed, he boasted of how: I had a stroke of genius a day after joining Magnum and never took in any of my negs. Instead. I've always updated my stuff on computer myself. My new Foundation is intended to help and educate, provide avenues for a new generation to explore. People need to keep in mind that Vietnam is being repeated: Iraq is the infantilisation of the US and UK markets.'

The United States. Jones Grifllths's unlikely home for many years, including those of his presidency of the Magnum agency (1980-85), meant New York. Despite acknowledging: 1 got to love my place on 36th and 7th, right opposite Macy's. 1 love the international mix and the city's hum.' On reflection, lie then added: "I've had a wonderful time there, but I never felt truly at home.' Before finally concluding: I never lived in New York, I existed there. You get addicted to the efficiency ... yet my favourite place in the US is the departure lounge at JFK.'

Jones Griffiths returned to London - to the flat he had fortuitously bought in 1997 - because he had to. 'It's no secret that Magnum lost me my health insurance. I had no choice but to come back. Having been treated in the four best institutions in the US. I can tell you Hammersmith Hospital is a long way ahead." Despite his clearly desperate health. Philip remained energetic and positive. He was full of praise for the NHS and plans for the future: busy with publishing three books and launching at Paris's Mois de la Photo. Alternately discussing building his Hat and his foundation. Jones Griffiths had only one further stipulation in mind: 'The Philip Jones Griffiths Foundation for the Study of War will, of course, have to be housed in Wales.'

Bibliography

Philip Jones Griffiths. Vietnam Inc (Collier, 1971; Phaidon. 2006, hb. £24.95 ISBN 9780714846033)

Philip Jones Griffiths. Agent Orange - Collateral Damage in Vietnam (Trolley Books. 2003. hb. £24.99. ISBN 97819045630511

Philip Jones Griffiths. Viet Nam at Peace (Trolley Books. 2005. hb. £40.00 ISBN 97819045633891

Philip Jones Griffiths. Recollections (Trolley Books. 2008. hb. £40.00. ISBN 97819045637091


       


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