World, Life, etc, Media

War photographer extraordinaire, departed

By Greg Marinovich 14 May 2012

Horst Faas, 1933 – 2012. By GREG MARINOVICH.

I first heard the name Horst Faas in September of 1990, on the day I shot the brutal images of Lindsaye Tshabalala, “the burning man” in Soweto.

After bringing those Saturday morning images of horror in to the Associated Press’s Johannesburg office, to picture editor Denis Farrell to process – I was too shocked to trust myself with that – I went home and fell into a deep sleep. When the weekend desk editor in London had seen the horrific images coming in, he called Faas at home and suggested he might want to come in to handle the story. Many of his level in upper management might have stayed home with the family. Within half an hour, Faas was in the office.

Faas was by then a late middle-aged man with two Pulitzer Prizes and an Overseas Press Club Robert Capa for courage (among other awards) under his belt. He had covered three major wars, most notably Vietnam. During that time, he was severely wounded. He looked at the images, sent a note to Johannesburg, “JOBP, Send all photos. Faas, LONP.”

Farrell called me back in to help with captions. In those days, it was usual to send two pictures of an incident because the analogue transmission took 21 minutes to send just one colour image. It took the same amount of time for the foreign bureaus to transmit each image. That day, JOBP transmitted at least 20, and LOBP put 18 on the wires.

Faas’ intervention to ensure that a full picture essay of the story went out to the world helped those images win a Pulitzer Prize.

A burly, fleshy man, who spoke in gruff, German-accented English, he was generous in helping those who worked for him. In 1968, Faas, recovering after an almost fatal grenade wound, was in the Saigon office managing coverage during the 1968 Tet Offensive when Eddie Adams shot the image of a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong guerrilla. It was an image that had a massive impact.

Much earlier, Faas was known for hiring, training and equipping local photographers, known as “Horst’s Army”.  One of them Hu?nh Công Út was tragically killed in the war. It was inevitable that Faas would later hire his younger brother, known as Nick Ut, who went on to shoot the 1972 image of the naked young girl running down a road after being burnt by a Napalm attack.

AP’s bureau chief Richard Pyle at the time recalled in an interview that Faas said, “I think we have another Pulitzer here” when he looked at Ut’s film through his magnifying glass in 1972.  Horst added in the same interview: “It remains one of the most perfect news photos I have seen in my 50 years in photo-journalism.”

After transmitting them, Faas had to argue, by telex, with the NY head office not to censor the images, which contained full frontal nudity. AP policy was that nudes, of all ages, were forbidden to run on the wire. Eventually, the images were allowed to go, and the rest is history.

He was no prima donna, despite his talent. When space was at a premium, Faas was known to hand a camera and a handful of Tri-X film to a reporter as he boarded a military helicopter with the instruction “1/500th and f8, and I vill save you in ze darkroom, ja?”

Born in 1933 in Berlin, Germany, and forced into the Hitler Youth, he recalled the thrill of watching the pyrotechnics of the Allied air raids during WWII. He and his family escaped the advancing Soviet forces to Munich, later West Germany. Little wonder he became a conflict photographer.

He later became AP’s London photo boss and I was lucky enough to work for the agency for part of the time. Getting what the wires referred to as a “hero-gram” from Faas was a rare accolade. He sounded gruff, and Teutonically short of adjectives, he was one of the most interesting guys to chat to, with a profound love and knowledge of Asian art and culture.

When I was covering the siege of Dubrovnik in 1990, and the Jugoslav National Army-backed Serbian forces were getting closer and closer, I was getting nervous. I used the only means of communication available – the hotel telex – to ask Faas what to do. He said something to the effect of: “Don’t get between the opposing sides. Find a place to hide until they have taken the city and then come out and carry on working.”

Luckily the city never fell, but it was Faas’s words I needed, especially over his favoured telex machine, which so suited the brevity of his thinking.

It was Faas’s second Pulitzer that perhaps best demonstrates the man. In the aftermath of the bloody breakaway of East Pakistan from the dominant West Pakistan to become Bangladesh, he and fellow AP photographer Michel Laurent photographed Bangladeshi troops torturing and then bayoneting prisoners to death. Some other famous Western photojournalists left the stadium, saying the scene was staged. Faas, as is his wont, stayed and shot the pictures. They sear the retina to this day.

Faas died in Munich on Thursday, and is survived by his wife Ursula and daughter Clare. DM

Read more:

Photo: Vietnam War photographer Horst Faas (C), who along with Tim Page (not shown) compiled the acclaimed book “Requiem” on the 135 photojournalists who died or went missing covering war in Indochina, presents a copy of the publication to Luong Thi Nhieu (R) on March 10, 2000. Nhieu’s husband was one of the 72 photographers from North Vietnam who were killed during the Vietnam War. An exhibition of the “Requiem” images went on display in Hanoi on Friday, an event that comes just before the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 2000.


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