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War and conflict

How Hong Kong was Asia base for war photographers: exhibition shows their work from Vietnam, Korea and Sino-Japanese wars 

Before digital media, photographers had to get into war zones, risk their lives to get the shots, then get the photos and reels flown out to the agencies. During the Sino-Japanese, Korean and Vietnam wars, Hong Kong was a popular staging point for these intrepid men, many of whom met with violent deaths

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 11:16am

There are many clichés and glamorous misconceptions about war photography, but the unarguable fact is that many of those who pursue it meet a violent and premature death.

“Braving Untold Dangers”, an exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence, which runs until April 30, traces the history of war reporting and highlights some of those at the vanguard of photojournalism in Asia. 

Many, such as Chinese photographer Sha Fei,  whose distinctive images of the Sino-Japanese war (1937-45) have been compared to those of the legendary Robert Capa, lost their lives in a violent fashion. Sha Fei was executed by the authorities after murdering his Japanese doctor, but it is widely believed he suffered from trauma-related mental illness as a consequence of his work. Many others lost their lives in the line of duty.

Capa is perhaps the most famous of all war photographers and arrived in Hong Kong in February 1938 to work on the same conflict. He was widely regarded as something of celebrity, who flew first class into war zones and was rumoured to have had romantic affairs with Hollywood starlets. He was killed by a landmine in Vietnam in 1954. 

Hong Kong developed a long and proud association with war photojournalism in Asia, and acted as a base for those dispatched to cover the Sino-Japanese war, Korean war, Vietnam war and other conflicts in the region. After the second world war, the city became a centre of war photography.

A few photographs from the era of the Vietnam war hang on the walls of the quiet room at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in Central. One memorable image, of US staff boarding a helicopter on the roof of an evacuated Saigon building in 1975, is the work of Dutch photographer Hubert (Hugh) van Es, who made his home in Hong Kong. 

He was president of the FCC for some years and died in 2009. The photo wall in the main bar, on which leading press photography is exhibited, is named in his honour.

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“Hugh was my best friend but he was already famous when I arrived here,” says Hong Kong-based photojournalist Kees Metselaar, who has photographed famine, natural disaster and conflict during his long career, and now teaches at the University of Hong Kong.

“Hugh came here in 1967 and worked for the SCMP for a while … but he was in and out of Vietnam for seven years,” he says. Metselaar explains that before the advent of rolling 24-hour TV news, the public relied on magazines such as TimeLife and Paris Match for visual reports of conflicts around the world. This drove the need, and provided the budget for, compelling war photography.

“At that time Life magazine was more important than TV,” he says, and acknowledges the profound changes made possible by the advent of the internet and digital images. Where once reels of film had to be flown out of a war zones for development and publication, now editors are able to browse and select from hundreds of digital images from any conflict at any time, within minutes of them being taken.

“War journalism is probably never totally dying, but everything in our zone is constantly changing and suddenly my experiences in the 1980s and ’90s feel extremely antiquated,” Metselaar admits.

Another Hong Kong-based war photographer, regarded by many as among the very best, is Larry Burrows, who ran the Life magazine office in Hong Kong and reported from Vietnam from 1962 until his violent death in 1971 in Laos. 

One of Burrows’ best-known photo essays, published in Life on April 16, 1965, was entitled “One Ride with Yankee Papa 13” and documented a fatal US helicopter mission from Da Nang to airlift South Vietnamese troops stuck in fierce crossfire.

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“Larry is my hero,” says veteran award-winning photojournalist Robin Moyer, who spent 16 years working for Time magazine, including many assignments in conflict zones. Although he plays down his combat photographer credentials, Moyer worked near the Vietnam-Cambodia border in 1970, and received two awards for his coverage of the 1982 Lebanon war. 

Moyer says it was Burrows who showed him how to use his first camera at Burrows’ home in Headland Road, Repulse Bay, while the young student sat on a pile of silver camera cases which were to be shipped to Vietnam in 1962. 

Writers can stay in the hotel or can interview the cab driver, but photographers need to make a photo
Kees Metselaar 

“Burrows was the most professional of all the photographers in the Vietnam war. He would go out to research specific stories, not just capture images,” says Moyer. The Burrows image called “Reaching out”, of a soldier with his head bandaged reaching towards a wounded comrade, is perhaps his most notable. 

“In 1970, during my first helicopter ride into a combat zone on the Cambodian border, Larry Burrows was on the same helicopter, along with Kyoichi Sawada,” says Moyer. Sawada, one of some 50 Japanese photographers who covered the Vietnam conflict, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 and worked at the UPI bureau in Hong Kong from 1968. 

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Sawada was shot dead with a colleague, Frank Frosch, while driving through a conflict zone in Cambodia in November 1970, and Burrows died with fellow photojournalists Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto, when their helicopter was shot down over Laos, in February 1971.

The organisation Reporters Without Borders estimates 63 journalists died over a 20-year period ending in 1975 while covering the Vietnam conflict, and a disproportionate number were photographers.

“Writers can stay in the hotel or can interview the cab driver, but photographers need to make a photo,” Metselaar says.

And not all those in the field were famous award winners like Capa, Van Es and Burrows. Most were just young professional journalists, attracted to adventure, who needed to earn a living. 

“I stayed in Vietnam because I was making US$1,000 a month and that was incredible money in those days for a freelancer,” says former war photographer Derek Maitland, speaking from his home in the small Australian town of Canowindra, some 300km west of Sydney.

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Maitland was based in Hong Kong for 16 years, and photographed and reported on the Vietnam war from 1965 until 1968. Now aged 75, Maitland describes how he left Australia to work as a reporter in Hong Kong and felt compelled to report on the Vietnam war.

“I just bought a second-hand Pentax camera and headed out to Saigon. I didn’t even know how to use it,” he admits.

As his skills developed together with his antipathy to the US’ execution of the war, he tried to convey the inhumanity of armed conflict. 

“The ability not just to do blood and guts but to portray characters and people on both sides of the conflict and the civilians trapped in the middle,” he says. 

After a horrific incident in October 1967, when he and British photographer Nik Wheeler went on a rescue mission with US airborne troops to locate the scene of the slaughter of more than 70 American soldiers, deep in the Central Highlands, Maitland started to lose his nerve.

“What we both found in a small jungle clearing was a big sprawling heap of smashed and bullet-ridden bodies, surrounded and festooned with empty ammo boxes and other discarded equipment,” he says. When they came under heavy fire from North Vietnamese forces, he grabbed a discarded M-16 rifle and dived on the ground, but felt icy cold and incapable of gripping the weapon.

“And that’s when I fell completely apart. I lost my mind,” he admits candidly.

“Between that incident and the Tet Offensive [February 1968] I had been close to death three times. Once, lying face down in a ditch during a firefight, I decided I wanted to get out,” he says.

Unlike many others, Maitland decided to leave and never return. He never looked at his old photos and some were never seen by the public. 

“The reason I have never shown my stuff is that I thought I was a just a writer who took pictures,” he says, but when he looked at them recently, for the first time in almost 50 years, he felt proud of them.

“I think I captured a taste of the emotion in Vietnam. They tell people what the underlying sense of war is,” Maitland says. He refers to one image of a Vietnamese schoolgirl looking into the camera with a haunting look of latent fear.

“I see that image now and wish I had never taken the photo,” he says. 

When he posted some images online he was overwhelmed by positive feedback from professional photojournalists, who urged him to exhibit them. So, some 7,000km away from Hong Kong, he is staging a two-week exhibition of his unseen war photography in his hometown on April 20. It is called “Impressions of War”. 

Maitland has been battling cancer in recent months and some of his friends and former colleagues, including Moyer, are lobbying to have his work exhibited in Hong Kong, too.

There probably could not be a more apposite location that the Van Es photo wall at the FCC.

Braving Untold Dangers

Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence, 175 Tung Hei Rd, A Kung Ngam, tel: 2569 1500 

Until April 30