Theory & Practice

Philip Jones Griffiths in His Own Words

We present photographer Philip Jones Griffiths' personal thoughts on his diligent documentation of humanity.

Philip Jones Griffiths

Since ancient times, the shield has presented a challenge to military designs --- how to see the enemy without sacrificing protection. The latest development is one made of Plexiglas. Unfortunately (...)

“Not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths,” said Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson of the Magnum president. However, the photographer’s repertoire captures a far wider portrait of the human condition than its penchant for violence (which he did document in its extremes during the wars in Vietnam and Algeria). His portrayal of ordinary life in Great Britain, the reality of living through the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and global communities with radically different ways of life to that one he’d grown up with in his native Wales, are presented with detailed texts and captions that reveal his astute observations about the mechanics of war, the Western psyche and collisions of ideology.

Philip Jones Griffiths South Vietnam. Saigon. 1967. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos

His insights would, on occasion, appear prophetic. His book Vietnam Inc. (1971), which he dedicated to fallen fellow photographers, was published in the same year that the Washington Post famously broke ground by publishing the Pentagon’s secret papers. The leak exposed high-level doubts about military decision making in Vietnam and included details of government concerns that the war was unwinnable at a time when they were being publicly positive about it’s prospects. Philip Jones Griffiths’ own writing on the situation revealed insights that seemed to echo much of what the U.S. government seemed to be saying in private.

Philip Jones Griffiths South Vietnam. 1970. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos

"The Camera requires one to be there – a photographer is denied the luxury of philosophizing from afar."

- Philip Jones Griffiths
Philip Jones Griffiths In an attempt to impose the American value system on the Vietnamese, the Marines concluded operations called, in Orwellian Newspeak, "county fairs." Villagers were taught how to wash their children (...)

A deeply felt sense of justice and affinity with those whose lives were torn apart brought Griffiths back to Vietnam to trace the devastating effects of the defoliant known as ‘Agent Orange’. His experiences of war afforded him a unique perspective on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Jarring, darkly humourous images showed British Soldiers dressed in full military gear stalking neatly manicured gardens, and lurking next to the village corner shop. His opinions became clear through his detailed, acerbic captions: “The incongruities of daily life in the urban war zone. For years, the people of Northern Ireland lived in a strange and strained symbiosis with the occupying British army,” he wrote.

Philip Jones Griffiths Guardsmen outside Buckingham Palace. London, Great Britain. 1959. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos
Philip Jones Griffiths I photographed the Beatles during their first concert in Liverpool. I spent most of the time in their dressing room getting to know them. The highlight was the reading of letters from female fans t (...)

The retrospective book Dark Odyssey (1996) took stock of Griffiths’s 40-years of photography, with career highlights published along with his own reflective writing. Here, we present some of the photographer’s words, where he ruminates on his practice, and the world he assiduously documented.

Philip Jones Griffiths This young boy epitomizes our Welsh ambivalent love for both rugby and music. This place, Pant-y-Wean, was once, in the 1930s, voted the most Beautiful Village in South Wales, but it has long since (...)
The incongruities of daily life in the urban war zone. For years, the people of Northern Ireland lived in a strange and strained symbiosis with the occupying British army. Northern Ireland. 1973.

"I took delight in being the silent observer in rowdy crowds, the all-too-visible invisible man"

- Philip Jones Griffiths

On his early inspiration in Wales

“I discovered photography among various youthful distractions. As I immersed myself in the subject, I came across a statement by Henri Cartier-Bresson, explaining that with a camera the discovery of the external world simultaneously reveals the internal world. I found this prospect electrifying: it had to be key to the meaning of life!

Wales has a puritanical culture and heritage of strict morality. While I had no difficulty rejecting mandates hurled from the pulpit, in ensuing arguments I found myself embracing the idea that life should have a purpose. I now felt lucky to have discovered one.

Revelling in my new-found calling, I set out to explore my own country. With my prophetically named Agiflex camera around my neck and Camus’s The Stranger in my pocket, I took delight in being the silent observer in rowdy crowds, the all-too-visible invisible man.”

Philip Jones Griffiths Dowlais. Wales, Great Britain. 1961. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos

On Photographing Conflict

“In war, truth is almost inevitably the first casualty. Lies are as indispensable as ammunition – often they are the ammunition. My camera has given me opportunities to witness the deceit implicit in conflicts, and my goal is to see through the deceptions. The Camera requires one to be there – a photographer is denied the luxury of philosophizing from afar.

There are photographers who are still hammering home simplistic maxims about “man’s inhumanity to man.” This affords little insight into the subject. What we need is to understand the reasons why men set out to kill one another – a good place to start would be the realm of economics. Then, perhaps we will be able to find another way to solve our differences.”

Philip Jones Griffiths Older soldiers who missed their families befriended dogs and children. The canines proved more congenial. More dogs than wives were taken back to the U.S. Vietnam. 1967. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos
This woman was tagged, probably by a sympathetic corpsman, with the designation VNC (Vietnamese civilian). This was unusual. Wounded civilians were normally tagged VCS (Vietcong suspect) and all (...)

On Religion and Morality

“It has always been easy to find connections between immoral behaviours and religion. The Christian church claims a monopoly on virtue, yet its role in the genocide of the inhabitants of the Americas required a suspension of moral values. I have noticed that most societies have a highly developed code of morality, quite independent of any religion.True, the code is often appropriated by or credited to a religion – if the mountain of gorillas of Rwanda were a notch of two “higher” on the evolutionary tree, the American Republican party would no doubt attribute their harmonious lifestyle to the success of Christian values.

In my youth, it was the debate over nuclear weapons that highlighted the gulf between religion and morality. The opposition to government policy was essentially secular. The prospect of instant death – we were assured we would have four minutes to say our good-byes before vaporization – concentrated the public mind on no answer other than the lame suggestion that is we were all the die in a man-made hellfire on earth, then we’d get preferential treatment on reaching the pearly gates.”

Philip Jones Griffiths Nannies Outside No.10. Downing Street was open to the public in those days and each afternoon the same nannies would pause to chat up the policemen on duty. England, Great Britain. 1959. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos
Philip Jones Griffiths Piccadilly Circus, London, England. 1960. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos
Philip Jones Griffiths A rainy night in Oxford Street where a young couple seek a tender moment in a doorway. London, England. 1960. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos

On the Vietnam War

“The war in Southeast Asia revealed the true nature of American foreign policy as it had never been seen before. Fore more than ten years the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth tried everything short of nuclear weapons to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a small nation of poor rice farmers. And they failed. Despite the slaughter, the people triumphed. America had the smart bombs but the Vietnamese had the smart minds. The battle was between technology and human beings, and the human beings won.

Being British, and a photographer, I had a privileged overview of the contest. I spent five years immersed in Vietnam trying to make sense of what was going on. All that was needed was a cool head, a sharp eye and a modicum of humanity to qualify as a serious observer. My book Vietnam Inc. examined every aspect of the war and, I hope, helped illuminate the subject.

At times the Vietnam War, like all wars, had the drama of the Forces of Darkness murdering the Innocents. The task, of course, was to see beyond the obvious. All wars produce the familiar iconic images of horror, which do little to further anyone’s understanding of a particular conflict. My purpose was to understand the nature of the war, and reveal the truth about it, with photographs providing the visual proof. The photographs are the evidence.”

Browse the curation of Philip Jones Griffiths fine prints on the Magnum shop here.

Philip Jones Griffiths The battle for Saigon. Refugee from US Bombing. Vietnam. 1968. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos
Philip Jones Griffiths The battle for Saigon. Vietnam. 1968. © Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos
Philip Jones Griffiths The parents of young children were rarely present in the village of Vietnam. Americans often wondered where all the children came from. The fathers were often away fighting for one side or the othe (...)
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