Saigon Execution by Eddie Adams
Episode #4 of the course “Pulitzer prize-winning photos”
In 1967, the United States was deeply involved in the Vietnam War, and although many people understand that atrocities occur during wartime, the increase in news photography coverage of the war was exposing people to the situation there like never before. AP photojournalist Eddie Adams was on the reporter team escorting South Vietnamese Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan when the general took a Viet Cong ranking official into his custody. Nguyen Van Lem, also known as Captain Bay Lop, was the leader of a Viet Cong “death squad” that targeted South Vietnamese police officials and civilians. On the day he was taken into custody, Lem had led a raid that left police officers and their innocent family members buried in a shallow mass grave.
After his arrest, General Loan was escorting Lem while Adams documented the scene. When the general raised his gun at Lem’s temple, Adams assumed an interrogation was about to take place. He raised his camera to capture the fear on Lem’s face and the general shot the prisoner—at the same moment, Adams took his picture. The picture, which was entitled “Saigon Execution,” actually shows the bullet exiting Lem’s skull. After killing Lem, the general said to Adams and NBC TV cameramen, “He killed a lot of our men, and yours too. I think Buddha will forgive me.”
Eddie Adams won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for the image that helped inspire a large anti-war movement in the United States. As onlookers blamed the major general and became supportive of the image only as an insight into the horrors of war, Adams apologized for the backlash that General Loan suffered. He later said he wished he had never taken the picture, although it remains one of the most iconic and recognizable moments in photojournalism.
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