There’s a moment in an exceptional 1998 documentary on Hugh van Es when he tells photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen that he never joined a union. It’s a great exchange between two generations of war photographers about coping with the horrors they encounter.
Van Es, who took the picture which defined the Fall of Saigon, says: “You can’t bottle it up. Find a release. In Vietnam you went on a drinking binge for a few days when something terrible happened.”
“Today there are ways to get help. Go to a psychologist. Talk. It’s paid for by the union,” says van Lohuizen.
The look on van Es’ face is priceless but his response, “I’ve never joined a union” – just like his most famous photograph – is not strictly ‘true.’
In 1967, the year the Baxters arrived in Hong Kong, my father Jack Spackman (known here for literary purposes as the Big Baxter) was working on the China Mail when a photographer was sacked. It was late in the year and followed a run-in with the Editor who summarily showed the young smudger the door.
Bax, fresh from the Lucky Country, was already appalled at the way journalists were treated in Hong Kong, but the sacking of Hu van Es in late 1967 spurred him to action.
“Your father started a signature campaign, objecting to my unlawful dismissal, but management didn’t listen,” van Es told me.
“That is when he decided to start the Hong Kong Journalists Association, so there could be some protection in cases like this. It didn’t help me at the time, but it has helped a lot of journalists since then, to this day.
“Your father’s membership number was 001, since he was the chairman, then followed the other members of the committee (three of them). I’m proud that to this day my membership number is 005, being the first journalist member at the time and the reason the Association was started.”
The HKJA was born over a dinner in the Diamond Restaurant in Wanchai’s Lockhart Road and it took six months to shape a constitution and meet all the requirements of the Trade Unions Registrar.
It was a bold move, with the violent clashes of the 1967 riots barely subsided, in a town which regarded any kind of workers’ grouping as potentially dangerous Communist agitators.
Early meetings were held at the Baxter residence at Macdonnell Road where, Bax said, his Mao poster on the wall upset a senior Chinese journalist with Taiwan interests. Bax responded by putting a giant pair of sunglasses on the Great Helmsman, who cast his cool gaze upon us for the next 20 years.
Van Es, like Bax, was in Hong Kong as a stepping stone to Vietnam. Unlike Bax, he took the next step, starting as a soundman for NBC News a year after his unceremonious sacking, and going on to work as a photographer for Associated Press and then UPI.
On 29 April, 1975 he took the picture for which he will always be remembered. It wasn’t his favourite but he often wished he held the copyright, since all he got for it was a $150 bonus from UPI.
When I introduced him to the current Mr Baxter, naturally it was as the man who took that photograph and van Es instantly dismissed it. He pointed instead to another image, taken during the battle for Hamburger Hill. “That one was better,” he said. You can see it here.
Maybe so, but google him and it’s the ladder of people clambering to get into a helicopter that you’ll find, widely assumed to be on the roof of the US Embassy.
“Well, like so many things about the Vietnam War, it’s not exactly what it seems,” said van Es.
He captioned the picture correctly – that the helicopter was taking evacuees off the roof of a building in downtown Saigon (actually an apartment block housing CIA staff) – but the waiting picture editors at the other end of the wires just assumed it was the embassy, since that was the main evacuation site.
Eventually he gave up trying to correct the record, although he did pen a thorough account of the making of the famous shot in 2005, the same year he told me about his role in the formation of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
Bax had just died and three years later, in 2009, van Es followed him. I’ll have more to say about Bax’s legacy but in remembering van Es’ it seems a good time to correct the record.
My favourite photograph of Hugh van Es is this one (above), taken by legendary photojournalist Tim Page, who snapped it for The Guardian in Saigon during the 20th Anniversary of Liberation. “The wall was a modesty screen for the rising Sheraton Towers just down Tu Do street from the Caravelle (where Hugh took his picture),” said Tim. “He’s actually standing in the former doorway to the flat I shared with Nik Wheeler, Sean Flynn, Perry Deane Young, Dana & Louise (Smizer) Stone.”
This post is dedicated to Tim Page, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday in Brisbane and who continues to inspire and support girl and boy reporters and photographers everywhere. These days he works tirelessly to highlight the victims of war and its aftermath, returning regularly to Vietnam and Cambodia. I’d like to thank him for his generous permission to use his picture and for sharing the story of its making, and of course to wish him many more birthdays. – Sally xx
Thirty years at 300 millimeters – by Hubert van Es, New York Times
The Cat with Nine Lives – the 1999 Dutch documentary (with English subtitles)
The Doonesbury tribute (HT Marianne Harris for the link)
Obituary: Hugh van Es – The Guardian
And more on Tim Page:
His bio at Degree South – an Australian photo collective made up of Tim Page and seven fellow distinguished photojournalists, including absent friend Sean Flynn.
Q & A with Tim Page – Time magazine