An inspiration to many, Philip Jones Griffiths was one of the most highly regarded photojournalists in the world. “Not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths” said Henri Cartier Bresson of the man who joined Magnum in 1966 before going on to be its’ President for an unprecedented 5 years. His work on the Vietnam war and subsequent book, Vietnam Inc., crystallized public opinion and gave form to Western misgivings about American involvement in Vietnam. One of the most detailed surveys of any conflict, Vietnam Inc. is also an in-depth document of Vietnamese culture under attack. Griffiths’ assignments, often self-engineered, took him to more than 120 countries. He continued to work for major publications such as Life and Geo on stories such as Buddhism in Cambodia, droughts in India, poverty in Texas, the re-greening of Vietnam, and the legacy of the Gulf War in Kuwait. His continued revisiting of Vietnam, examining the legacy of the war, lead to his two further books ‘Agent Orange’ and ‘Vietnam at Peace’. Griffiths’ work reflects on the unequal relationship between technology and humanity, summed up in his book Dark Odyssey. Human foolishness always attracted Griffiths’ eye, but, faithful to the ethics of the Magnum founders, he believed in human dignity and in the capacity for improvement.
I was privileged enough to have the chance to meet him after a talk he had given in London in 2007 where I was studying, and then even more so to have the opportunity to share a moment discussing Vietnam and parallels with its close neighbour, Burma. If there are moments in life that shape your thoughts and desires to follow a certain path then this brief meeting was most certainly that moment for me. It is the unquenchable thirst to uncover the truth and challenge what we are told or told to believe that is borne in Philip Jones Griffiths work like no other, as well as in the man himself, and provided me with the inspiration to start my involvement in Burma. That may well be where the parallels end, but to be inspired is often enough to at least try. He unfortunately passed away in March 2008 but his work will last many lifetimes more.