Kyoichi Sawada’s 1965 photo of a Vietnamese family fleeing the bombing of their village in Binh Dinh province, during the war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam and the U.S. and its allies, has become a landmark image of 20th-century history. A mother, grandmother, two young children and a baby were photographed by the United Press International photographer wading through a deep river, clearly terrified, as U.S. troops tried to deny the area to Viet Cong snipers who had been harassing a nearby base.
The mother’s panicked face is in the center of the image. The family around her form a triangle that points to the right side of the frame, out to what’s coming next — the future, as it were (assuming that the image is read left to right). The five people in the picture are all facing different directions, giving us a sense of the panic and chaos of the situation. Will they find their way to safety?
At a time when photography and news footage had a possibly greater influence on changing the course of a war than any time before or since, Sawada’s powerfully compassionate, and eerily cinematic, photograph was a standout image. It won him the World Press Photo of the Year award for 1965 and contributed to his winning a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
After reaching the pinnacle of photojournalistic success, Sawada went back to the village in Binh Dinh to check on the family in the photograph. He thankfully found them all alive, and gave them a copy of the picture and a portion of his Pulitzer Prize money.
Sawada won a second World Press Photo award in 1966 for an image of a dead Viet Cong being dragged behind an American personnel carrier manned by two U.S. servicemen who seem to be completely indifferent, perhaps inured, to the grotesque nature of what they are doing. Four years after the photo was taken, Sawada and UPI Phnom Penh Bureau Chief Frank Frosch were found dead by the side of a road in Cambodia, where they had been beaten and executed by Khmer soldiers.
At the Izu Photo Museum’s “Sawada Kyoichi: From Home to Battle Zone,” an early picture of Sawada and his wife shows a brash, handsome man with a greased-back pompadour haircut. He looks defiantly out of the frame and directly at the viewer, hands in pockets, legs solidly planted square to the camera. He seems fairly pleased for us to admire him, with his wife at his side, turned slightly toward him. A short section of the exhibition after this displays some of Sawada’s shots of local landscapes in Aomori Prefecture, and of the Misawa U.S. Air Force Base, where he worked at the camera store.
Further inside the exhibition, next to an extended display that gives context for the aforementioned 1965 award-winning photograph, there is a portrait of Sawada visiting New York to pick up his Pulitzer. He is still dashing, but his hair is a little less rockabilly and he appears relatively subdued. Another photograph close by shows him back in the field, reunited with the family from Binh Dinh; he is beaming broadly out at us.
The last portrait of him, taken in Phnom Penh about a month before his death, has him gazing away to the left, back to the past. He no longer seems to be interested in being seen, which draws our attention instead to the events that he has witnessed: stacks of dead American troops in trenches in Khe Sanh, Viet Cong prisoners being executed and recently bombed-out civilians digging through the rubble of their homes.
“Sawada Kyoichi: From Home to Battle Zone” at the Izu Photo Museum runs until Dec. 25; Sept.-Oct. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Nov.-Dec. until 4:30 p.m. ¥800. Closed Wed. www.izuphoto-museum.jp/e/index.html