Philip Jones Griffiths had a happy childhood as a native Welsh speaker in rural north Wales. He was born, one of three boys, in Rhuddlan, Denbighshire, played prop forward in the rugby team, and was educated at local schools. It was typical of his modesty to regard reading pharmacy at Liverpool University as down to chance rather than ability. But that training stood him in unexpectedly good stead, providing a passport to work in the local chemist, and in obtaining his transfer to Boots in Piccadilly, London. There he found the opportunity to process customers’ films and peruse the Photography Annual – and finally to engage in his vocation.
He had already dabbled with wedding shoots and freelance submissions to the Rhyl Leader in the 1950s. At university, he contributed to the Manchester Guardian, and as a cameraman to Granada Television. At this stage he originated his own photo-stories, including one on English evacuees to Wales, and another on the dispossessed youth of an impoverished teenage generation. Significantly, he later told me: “I got all that beautiful landscape stuff out of the way in north Wales and was ready for the rest of the world.”
By 1961, Griffiths had met Ian Berry, the former Drum Magazine photographer and early Magnum member, and later started work with the Observer, building a fulltime career with the glossy magazines Town, Queen, Look, Life, McCalls, as well as the Sunday Times and New York Times colour supplements. He continued to freelance for the Guardian. He began to travel on assignments – from Northern Ireland to Rhodesia, Algeria to Israel, Zambia to Cambodia. And it was in Phnom Penh that he got a major break, photographing Jackie Kennedy on holiday. It made him enough to fund his whole Vietnam project.
To Griffiths, Vietnam was another country where “a mechanised monster had despoiled an innocent landscape”. He related it to Goya’s etchings in The Disasters of War; indeed, his hero Henri Cartier-Bresson – the man whose picture had first inspired the 16-year-old Jones Griffiths at the Rhyl camera club – later wrote: “Not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths.”
The level of impact Vietnam Inc had is indicated by Noam Chomsky’s recent comment: “If anybody in Washington had read that book, we wouldn’t have had these wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.” They needed also to read Vietnam at Peace, the follow-up 25 years later, exploring the legacy and how it takes another generation to begin the recovery.
His portraits of soldiers in action or, as often, at ease, have an insider’s conviction. The result is a work of extremes in which horror alternates with humanity: the soldiers on the point of raping a Vietnamese girl or the wounded civilian so swathed in bandages her identification is reduced to a label reading “VNC female”. In an interview last month, and in confirmation of his insider status, Griffiths told me: “I truly felt at home there, among family.”
Almost paradoxically, Griffiths chose to live mostly in the US. It was a good professional base and he became Magnum president from 1980-85, the longest term ever served by a single member.
At the time of his death he was fully engaged in fresh projects. He had settled in London and in addition to his Philip Jones Griffiths Foundation for the Study of War, there was his work on Cambodia, documented between 1973 and 1975, which he was again rediscovering. He was also enthusiastic over his visit last year to Damascus. And he had just completed a new book of Recollections, images of British daily life from the 1950s to the 1970s. In his mind, he repeatedly returned to Wales, that small country once so brutally colonised by the English that, he claimed, the experience helped him to identify with oppressed countries everywhere.
Griffiths never married – he regarded marriage as the “bourgeois option”. He is survived by Fanny Ferrato and Katherine Holden, his daughters from two long-term relationships.
Taken from an obituary in the Guardian, to read more click here