August 27: Do women, in making war photographs, see what their male counterparts miss?
Margaret Bourke-White (*1904) died in 1971 on this same date, August 27, on which Catherine Leroy was born in 1944 in France, just two days after the liberation of Paris when the German garrison surrendered the French capital. While Bourke-White’s career was already established when she came to be among the first well known female war photographers, Leroy’s began with the Vietnam conflict, before she’d even had any image published.
The cliche image of the war photographer, the macho male, is reflected in the titles of books and films by or about them; The Bang-Bang Club by Greg Marinovich (*1962) and Joao Silva (*1966), Don McCullin’s (*1935) Unreasonable Behaviour and Alex Kershaw’s biography of Robert Capa (1913–1954) Blood and Champagne.
Although eclipsed by these men, Leroy, and other women who photographed in Vietnam including Dickey Chapelle (1918–1965) and Felipa (aka Philippa) Schuyler (1931–1967) neither of the latter being the first woman to die in combat taking pictures, have become legends themselves, but too often we see images of them, rather than by them; a sign of a prejudice that sees women as out of place, exotic rarities, in war photography.
Leroy was educated in a Paris convent school. Contrary to the common perception, and having been a teacher myself in a Catholic girls’ college, I can vouch that nuns are tough, and intentionally or not, their attitudes encourage assertiveness and resilience in their young charges. While her parents wanted a concert pianist’s career for her, Leroy pored over the news pictures in Paris MATCH, and took up parachuting as a hobby. On 21 December 1966, she wrote to her mother from Saigon;
I’m really very happy and you can easily guess why… I’m going to be made an honorary member of the 101st Airborne. I am the only member of the whole press here who will jump during the first effective combat jump by American troops in Vietnam on 13 January…
You will easily discover the mythology surrounding Leroy; it goes something like this passage which appeared in Lawrence Mullen’s 2007 review in Visual Communication Quarterly, 14:1 of the book Leroy edited late in her life, Under Fire: Great Photographers and Writers in Vietnam (ISBN 1400063582):
At 21 years old she bought a one-way ticket to Saigon to document American troops in Vietnam in 1966. In less than 2 years her courageous work as a photojournalist made her one of the most published photographers of that war. Later she was wounded and captured by the North Vietnamese Army during the Tet Offensive. She managed to talk her way free, but before she left she took some rare photos of the North Vietnamese soldiers from their perspective which made the cover of LIFE magazine in February 1968.
The ‘capture’ and wounding were separate events and the truth of her excursion into North Vietnamese territory in Hué is a little more prosaic of course, but still exemplifies her courage, and to read Leroy’s own account, here transcribed from her LIFE magazine scoop with some of the pictures, illuminates her perspective on her achievements (please excuse the length; its a great yarn):
We were pedalling our rickety bicycle right into the outskirts of Hue before the bullets started popping all around and we realised just how much trouble we were in. François Mazure, a correspondent for Agence France Presse, and I had started out that morning from the Marine base at Phu Ba to find out about the fighting. We hitchhiked a ride with an American convoy to a point about four miles south of the city. We hadn’t seen any sign of the Marines a general had told us would be guarding the road, so we changed into civilian clothes we had brought along-just in case this kind of situation arose. We had rented the old bicycle from a French-speaking Vietnamese who lived along the road and continued north riding tandem.
The road was empty now, the people hiding in their houses. We were growing nervous and whenever we did see people peering from their houses, François called “bonjour, bonjour,” very loud and friendly, to show that we were French and not American. We reached the edge of the city and passed a big marketplace. and that’s when the shooting started. People were standing about in little knots. and we walked up to them shouting “Phal’ bay chi bale’’’-‘’French press from Paris”-but they wouldn’t look at us.
We stayed in the marketplace for about two hours, while the shooting continued and South Vietnamese fighter-bombers flew air strikes against the walled citadel of Hue about a mile to the north. We realized by now that we were in in a part of the city controlled by the Communists. Finally a man directed us to a nearby cathedral where he thought we might be safe.
The cathedral and the grounds around it swarmed with refugees from the two days of fighting in the city. François kept saying ·’Phap bao chi, phap bao chi,” but the people did not look happy to see us. Hundreds of children surrounded us. They were silent and wide-eyed and hostile, and they pressed against us, pushing in from all sides. I was glad when a priest arrived – a good-looking Vietnamese of about 40, who spoke French with great elegance and precision. The wife of Bao Dai, the last emperor, had found refuge in this church, he told us, during a Viet Minh Insurrection more than 20 years ago, and we were welcome to stay the night. The priest showed us around the cathedral and grounds.
There were about 4.000 refugees, most of them women and children and old men. There were about 10 wounded, and one woman had just given birth to a baby. She lay on the floor in front of a confessional. Inside, the sound of all the people talking and the children crying was incredible, a rolling, continuous roar. That night we slept in the priest’s room–or tried to. Next door in another room all the priests were praying loudly in Vietnamese, and their prayers were punctuated by bursts of gunfire.
Next morning, the priest told us flatly that the people were unhappy about our being there. They feared that our presence, as whites, might enrage the North Vietnamese. A young boy, a former juvenile delinquent with whom the priest had been working, volunteered to try to lead us through the North Vietnamese Iines to the military compound where the Americans were holding out.
We left all our military clothes behind, even our boots. I got a pair of priest’s sandals, François a pair of shower shoes. I stuffed my American and Vietnamese military identity cards in my bra along with several cans of film that were already exposed. I am only five feet tall and weigh 65 pounds, and I kept asking François, an old friend, ” look at my bosom. Does it look strange?” We made a white flag from one of the priest’s robes, and made two big signs saying “Phap bao chi bale” and pinned them across our shirts. The priest himself wrote a letter for us in Vietnamese, explaining who we were. Then we started down the trail from the church, our young delinquent out ahead of us with the white flag.
We soon came to a large, pleasant-looking villa with a garden around it, and suddenly we realised uniformed men were standing there staring at us. They looked astonished. The boy waved his white flag furiously, and we started shouting what was becoming our password-“”Phap bao chi bale! “Phap bao chi bale!” Three men came up to us. They were North Vietnamese soldiers. They were dressed in khaki uniforms and carried AK-47 automatic rifles. Their faces were hostile, but they seemed calm. I was less afraId now than before. At least the three men were real–you could see them, smell them. They were somehow less frightening; than the enemy with no face, the only one I had known before.
François handed them the letter from the priest. They looked at it but did not seem to be reading. They just stared at the paper. I saw François clutch his camera–the photographer’s reflex was taking over. But the men look our cameras away and motioned to us to go ahead of them toward the garden. At the gate they tied our hands behind our backs with parachute cord. They were thorough rather than brutal.
When they led us into the garden, we saw about 15 soldiers silting in foxholes dug under the trees. Several of them came up and looked at us impassively. François had retrieved the letter. He held it in his bound hands and each time a man came up to him he twisted around and presented the letter. “Mon Dieu:’ François said, “they’re not reading it! They just look at the paper.”
We stood in the garden for about 45 minutes. François kept talking to them very angrily in French. In order not to seem frightened or apprehensive or guilty he acted as if he were offended and furious at being made to suffer such indignities.
Overhead an American spotter plane and a Vietnamese bomber circled. Each time they came over, François and I dived for the dirt. The North Vietnamese seemed unconcerned–they hardly moved.
At last we were taken to a small building in back of the house, apparently the servants’ quarters. When we walked in, we immediately saw a white man –heavy and about 50 years old with a worried face. “Are you French?” François burst out. “Yes, yes I am ,” the big man said. He seemed terribly glad to see us, and we were lust as glad to see him. We even turned halfway around so that he could shake our bound hands. Almost nothing will stop a Frenchman from shaking hands.
The man told us an extraordinary story. He managed the electricity plant in the area. A year ago while out driving at night he had been ambushed by the Vietcong, and the bullet had severed two of his fingers.
When the Vietcong rushed up to the car to finish him off he screamed, ” I am a Frenchman.” The Vietcong leader bandaged his wounded hand, helped him to get his car started again and released him. Then, two nights before, the North Vietnamese had come, screaming in waves across the rice fields, and taken over the Frenchman’s house. Several V.C political agents arrived to talk with their comrades and, incredibly, their leader was the same V.C who had ambushed him a year before.
The V.C greeted the Frenchman cordially, and since then, although the Frenchman and his family–a Vietnamese wife and two teen-age daughters were prisoners in their own home, the North Vietnamese had treated them quite well.
As we sat talking, a new soldier entered. He identified himself as a North Vietnamese officer. He was about 25, carried a .38 pistol and he looked really rather dashing, like some of the Vietnamese university students one sees in Paris. When the Frenchman’s wife told him who we were, he ordered his men to untie us and asked whether we had our cameras. One of the soldiers had left them beside us, and we replied, yes, we had them now. But the officer wasn’t satisfied yet-he made us check our equipment to make sure nothing had been stolen.
With the Frenchman’s wife translating, the young officer told us that they held the city of Hue now–and it was obvious that he was speaking the truth. They were winning everywhere, he added ; they were liberating all of Vietnam.
When we asked if we could take some pictures he agreed immediately, and escorted us outside. He seemed very pleased with himself, and as a matter of fact he acted just like some of the information officers I’ve met in the American units.
The men seemed to be delighted al the idea of having their pictures taken. The only trouble was that they always wanted to strike the phoney heroic poses you see in North Vietnamese propaganda pictures. One grabbed a grenade and made as if to throw it. Another held up an American M-79 grenade launcher. All of the men were well armed and had a great deal of ammunition.
In the garden of the next house I photographed some of them swarming over a captured American tank. I doubt that they knew how to drive it, but they all grinned at us like soldiers of a victorious army.
Only one man objected to being photographed. He was a soldier holding an American military radio and when he saw I’d shot him with a telephoto lens he came over and demanded my film. I had no intention of giving it up and instead managed to hand him a perfectly blank roll of unexposed film.
We were pretending to be most casual, as if running around with North Vietnamese regulars was old stuff to us. But the fighting was raging all around us, sometimes very close. At any minute the government troops or the Americans might come driving in, and there we’d be in the middle of a firefight. When we got back to the house, François remarked, very off handedly, “Well, we have to get back to Paris with our story, so we’lI be running along now.”
The officer didn’t object at all. The Frenchman passed out cigars to François and the officer and they all lit up. Then we shook hands gaily all round and said goodby and good luck to the French family, and with our young Vietnamese guide we started out the gate. We looked back and saw the Frenchman standing there with his wife and daughters. He waved at us slowly, and his eyes were very wet.
When we reached the cathedral again, all the priests and the people swarmed around us asking questions, and the boy proudly told them what had happened. They could not believe it. François and I were laughing crazily. All the people were laughing too. Their hostility was gone and they were saying in English, ” Number one, number one.’ They took us to a room and suddenly the room was full of food. We had soup, cake, fruits, everything. After the meal, we gave our young guide 2,000 piasters ($17) and asked what he wanted from Paris. He laughed and said he wanted a pair of blue jeans. I held his hands and squeezed them.
We were ready to leave. Our troubles were not over yet: We had yet to walk back through the North Vietnamese, and through the no man’s land. I was to say and say again, ” François, I’ll kiss the first two Americans I meet!” and we would hole up in an ARVN compound where there were two wounded Americans, whom I would kiss, and I would try to get some morphine for them while François worked on the radio trying to get a Medevac chopper to pick them up. We would sit out a sharp firefight, get back to the U.S. military compound and next morning on an American sweep I would see a Marine Ontos shoot its six recoilless rifles at these same people in this same church because the North Vietnamese were all around and nobody knew who was who, and I would run screaming to the platoon leader and shake him and yell, ”There are 4,000 refugees in there, they aren’t V.C.., they are just people!” And those huge warriors in their flak jackets would grin at me and stop shooting.
But that would all come later. Now it was just laughter, the priest leading us out through the crowded cathedral as we cried, “Bonjour, bonjour,” and the people chanted, “Phap, phap,” and more softly “Boniour monsieur, bonjour mademoiselle, bonjour.”
The text is modest, matter-of-fact and lacking any of the gung-ho egotism that peppers the reminiscences of her male counterparts; to the contrary, she is at pains to credit her companion François Mazure with having got them out of trouble. Many say her lack of celebrity was due to her modesty and reluctance to promote herself.
What is clear is that Catherine Leroy’s photographs are driven by compassion; she makes sympathetic portraits of the North Vietnamese soldiers rather than framing them as the sinister, furtive enemy familiar from the US media image of the guerrilla fighter; as she writes of the soldiers that captured her in 1968, in the year that antiwar forces within the Democratic party clashed openly with the police on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention; “At least the three men were real – you could see them, smell them. They were somehow less frightening than the enemy with no face, the only one I had known before.”
It is this realism that marks Leroy’s perspective. To call her work ‘softer’ than that of the male combat photographers – because she foregrounds a boy toddler to underline the St Francis altarpiece in her photograph (above) in the Catholic sanctuary for instance –would be to fall into the same trap that labels McCullin et al. ‘macho’.
Leroy’s imagery is tougher, more confronting of the viewers’ conscience; rather than focus on the mechanics of conflict, she looks to the side, to see the effects of war on combatants and civilians alike; on its ‘collateral damage’. A distraught mother curled on the roadside with the corpse of her baby wrapped in a fly-covered blanket is discretely shot with a telephoto lens, but the observation in its inclusion of the fallen hat swathed in blue gauze, is of the random cruelty of war, as if the woman had dressed for a pleasant outing before this tragedy.
What she sees here are the fallen Americans, also abandoned by the roadside as battle continues, a vindication of a realisation dawning back in the USA, just as President Johnson was ramping up the draft, that this war and its cost in conscripts was pointless.
Leroy’s most famous photograph, made during the battle for Hill 881 near Khe Sanh, was shot in 1967 and known as Corpsman In Anguish, and was extracted from a sequence, taken in quick succession, portraying U.S. Navy Corpsman Vernon Wike.
Leroy recalled, “It was about 4:30 in the afternoon, I was maybe 3 or 3 1/2 metres away. Of course I was as close to the ground as I could be.” She heard the Marine scream as he ran, “‘I’m going to kill them all, I’m going to kill them all.’”
“The pictures I took of [this] Navy corpsman leaning over his dead buddy on 881 summed up for me my 15 months of war – I understood then what I was in Vietnam for. I was wounded two weeks later with the Marines in a mortar barrage near the DMZ. It was on the 19th day of May, and I took a couple of pounds [1 kilo] of shrapnel in my 85 pound [38 kilo] frame. It was a hell of a way to gain weight”
Leroy remained in Vietnam until March of 1969 when still in her early 20s, she went to New York, where she recuperated before next directing a couple of documentary films, including The Last Patrol, a film about a group of Vietnam veterans crossing the United States to protest Richard Nixon’s renomination at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. She then documented the military coup in Cyprus for the Parisian Sipa Press, arriving just a day before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. She returned to Vietnam in 1975 to witness the fall of Saigon, then went to Beirut to cover the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war, which she followed for the next two years, and for which she won the Robert Capa Award. She later gave up war for fashion photography, especially in Japan, then moved to Los Angeles and opened Piece Unique, an online website trading in used high fashion.
In 2005, to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War Paris Match assigned her last story; to photograph Vernon Wike, the former medic was the subject of her iconic Hill 881 photographs, in his home in Colorado, forty years on. Her Vietnam War photographs are exhibited at the Center for Photography at the University of California-Berkeley. She died on July 8 2006 in hospital a week after her cancer was diagnosed.
News has arrived, since I wrote the above, that a website devoted to Catherine Leroy and her work has been set up in advance of a new film about her which was finished last year, as well as the release of her more than one hundred letters home. The site hosts The Catherine Leroy Fund (Dotation Catherine Leroy or DCL), founded in 2011 with funding from Mrs. Denise Leroy (1914-2012), the mother of the photographer in 2011 to support an archive available to scholars, historians, researchers, students, and to the general public. Advancing this research, forty filmed interviews have been conducted in France and abroad with the men and women who knew or worked with Catherine Leroy.
Women war photographers are now not so rare, and Leroy’s contemporary heirs are found amongst the likes of German photographer Anja Niedringhaus (*1964), shot dead at a checkpoint in Afghanistan on 4 April 2014 by a man in police uniform, and young French photographer Camille Lepage (*1988) who died of gunshot wounds just four weeks later, in the Central African Republic.