In 1968, Eddie Adams took a picture that would change history.
Adams was 34 years old and working as a photographer for the Associated Press. He was covering the war in Viet Nam. On February 1st, Adams saw a Viet Cong prisoner being led through the streets of Saigon. Adams was among the many who followed, taking pictures. Adams wasn’t expecting to capture anything unusual. He thought it was just another day in Saigon. Instead, he captured a shot of Saigon police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing the prisoner in the street. Adams just happened to catch the exact moment that Loan fired his gun into the man’s head.
After the picture appeared in newspapers around the world, it became a rallying cry for the anti-war movement and it has since always been included in every documentary made about the Vietnam Conflict. The picture won Eddie Adams a Pulitzer Prize and it has been frequently cited as a picture that changed history. But Eddie Adams was never happy with it. Adams felt that it overshadowed every other picture that he took over the course of his long career and he also felt that it just wasn’t a very good picture. He hated the way that the picture was used to demonize Loan and, years later, when there was an attempt to charge Loan with a war crime, Adams testified on Loan’s behalf. Adams later wrote of the picture, “Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.”
An Unlikely Weapon is a documentary about Eddie Adams and his career. It not only tells the story of the photograph but it also looks at Adams’s later work. Adams went from war photography to fashion photography and even spent a while working for Penthouse (“Before it got raunchy”). Years after taking that picture in Saigon, he took photographs of refugees and activists around the world. The pictures were published in an acclaimed book called Speak Truth To Power. Adams hated the title, which he said was forced on him by the publishers. As the documentary shows, Adams was a perfectionist. That’s why his pictures are so powerful but it’s also why he was never happy with any of them. An Unlikely Weapon features several interviews with the late Adams and his colleagues and it’s inspirational to hear the story behind how they captured some of the most influential images in history.
Every photographer dreams of capturing the perfect picture. An Unlikely Weapon tells the story of a photographer who did just that and never forgave himself for it. It’s a documentary that should be required viewing for everyone who carries a camera.