Thoughts/Review/Recommendation of “An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story”
Photography has always fascinated me: to see what another saw, to have a moment frozen from hereafter for people decades later to view, to share another place-time-experience as if I were there. This is the world of film. This is humanity at its rawest.
Thus, it was with great interest I viewed the documentary “An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story.” (I watched it in its entirety on Netflix streaming.) Much more than an overview of Adam’s fascinating career, it was a lesson of love of humanity through and through, and a lesson of the individual who in pursuit of his own passion becomes a teacher to many.
That focus of an individual living his life, doing what he wants to do, and in the process becoming significant beyond what he may ever have imagined and in ways far beyond the career itself is one for all to remember. That aspect alone, to me, is what makes a documentary of an individual such as Adams intriguing and inspiring. From the life of one doing as he pleases, from the humor of situations one is placed in to the tragedy, from making a career but endeavoring to do it on your terms, from the feeling down to feeling on top of the world, comprises a life of what I consider true greatness. It has less to do with other people and more to do with the individual. This is why I appreciate biographical documentaries.
Not only in the interviews with friends, family and associates who spoke of his personality, but in the segments with Adams himself, I found his candor and spontaneity most impressive. (I appreciate those who just say it like they see it. Such honesty is rare.) His career in all its variety from war coverage, to doing photo shoots for Penthouse and Parade, to his Bathhouse Studio in NYC (what a transformation of that building!) and the workshops he made available, is covered from his perspective, and in interviews with co-workers, friends and family (including his son and his wife).
I really only knew of Adams’ incredible work from the Vietnam War including foremost that Pulitzer winning image ‘General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon’. Some images as that one, or the one taken by Nik Ut of the naked little girl running down the street to escape a South Vietnamese napalm attack and bombing, remain etched in one’s memory indelibly.
It is this I found most poignant of Adams’ career – his was a life of depicting the lives of those you and I would never have otherwise witnessed. And it is this which, to me, makes photographers as he, willing to go where most of us never have and never will go, more a historian in my eyes than simply a photo journalist.
I am 45. The Vietnam War began before my birth and ended while I was yet a young child. During my early teens, it became important to me to learn of this war which never in all my years of government school (until one lone mention in an AP high-school literature class) was covered in the least. I remember taking the history books and finding this tragic horrific chapter of American history conveniently omitted. So my research and learning was self-taught from the writings and the photos and film of those who were there. I believe it (and my reading of Gore Vidal) during those early years of my life began formulating my distrust of the federal government.
Photos such as those from Adams, of which you’ll view many in this excellent documentary, are powerful…powerful tools for peace. We learn that Adams has covered 13 wars, 6 American presidents, and numerous celebrities for over 50 years – but those mere words, colorful as they sound, achromatize upon becoming engrossed in this documentary. For Adam’s work is human with a capital “H” in all its tragedy, misery, sadness, depression, and in all its promise, delight and joy. In this film everything from war coverage to unique photography of celebrities is covered, but there is a far greater message here than only appreciating an art form – for it is not art which is the focus – it is the human experience.
For me, the point which the documentary most communicated was of love. For me, the images, the interviews and remembrances, the changes in governmental policy and societal judgments you’ll learn about as an apparent result of being exposed to a truth only an image can sear into your mind, all come down to love. Only in viewing each and every human being as like us do we relinquish focusing on the differences and rather focus on what we share – which is so much more.
This was poignantly discussed by Kim Phuc ( she was the little girl burned badly and seen running in the Nik Ut photo as she tried to escape a South Vietnamese napalm attack and then to escape bombing). This lady’s interview touched me deeply, for despite the horror she suffered, hers is a message of love and forgiveness – a message which as she says in so many words would – if adopted by all – stop war.
I learned much watching this documentary, not only for the good I derive in learning the story of another, or reminder of the inhumanity of man and the humanity, but also I was expressly reminded of the power for life, for good, for love which conveyance of the truth can create.
Within the tyranny Americans now find themselves in, each of us has tremendous power, often not realized fully by each of us, to affect the world for the better. Far beyond that which we might (if we attempted to) imagine the results of our actions and endeavors, we can change lives, inspire action, and decrease suffering. We may not even realize it at the time.
I recall Adam’s decision to board a small boat of Vietnamese refugees being turned away…his recollection of this moment was one of the most interesting to me. Here was a man who just made that decision, a decision very few would make, not knowing what would happen – but he did it. He even bought fuel and rice for them as he joined them. The outcome: photos which apparently made such a mark on those in the U.S. government that the refusal of Vietnamese refugees was reversed.
Photos do that. They turn lots of words, no matter how eloquent, into a reality the mind and heart cannot escape from. And, in that, is the power of the lens.
It is to that I turn as what I think is one of the strongest lessons you and I might learn: that we record everything that hits us in the gut, that we report it, share it, to tell what we have learned and what we have seen…that we share it in whatever means we have to do so.
These days, even on the streets of our cities, a camera in the hands of an individual can be a necessity to depict the truth – and sadly more and more a necessity to do so against gunned government thugs whose arrogance we’ve all witnessed in so many infamous YouTube videos. And when it comes to today’s imperialistic wars the U.S. government wages, one can not trust the sanitized versions provided by those who are doing the aggression. Regardless of the situation, overseas or domestically, people need to see and hear the truth. The government cares only about suppressing the truth be it back in Vietnam or now. I view all government – at any level – as having as one of its chief goals: suppression of the truth, making truth telling in all its forms vital. The evils and subsequent human suffering resulting from what government does at all levels must be reported boldly and courageously.
It is said the pen is mightier than the sword, and that a picture is worth a thousand words. These are not mere cliches, but have become commonly used because they really do express a truth. A truth found in a man’s work as Adams’ and those like him, and a truth found in all the works of those who cast aside fear in pursuit of something they aspire to.
Adams expressed something which made me think of a personal belief I hold when he recounted how he felt safe behind the lens. It is, to me, one of the most interesting aspects of his work that he shares (when one realizes the numerous dangerous situations this man has put himself into.) (It is my belief that spiritual forces come to work with us, even shielding us from harm in the midst of danger, when we place truth as our priority.) Such fearlessness is of love.
The last point I wish to make in my review and recommendation of this documentary is that those who say they want peace must not shelter themselves from human suffering. I’ve known several people over the years who identified themselves deeply with working for peace, and each of them refused to view film footage, films, or photos which showed violence. It didn’t matter if it was about Vietnam or Nazi Germany, for example, if it showed such pain they refused to view it saying they chose to focus on peace and love not the results of fear and violence and its hatred.
But I say that each of us, to the degree we really love, must not shelter ourselves from at least viewing such materials (even if we never witness personally such horrific misery). I speculate that one who wants to remove themselves from even the slightest degree experiencing that pain from man’s inhumanity to one another, is letting fear make the incorrect decision for them. I frankly doubt that one who will not even view an image will likely be of much real use in bringing peace, comfort, and relief to those in need should that situation arise, for fear has already made a decision, and their words of peace merely obfuscate their lack of courage within.
I highly recommend “An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story” to all…and most especially to those who have chosen to be an individual who seeks to ease suffering in all its forms, to oppose war, and who chooses to bring peace into this world as much as they can during their path.
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