French photojournalist Patrick Chauvel defines his life around photography, war and peace
Text by Lottie Delamian
Image by Quinn Ryan Mattingly
Patrick Chauvel has pretty much seen it all. Arriving in Vietnam in 1968, aged just 18, he embarked on a photography career that has spanned nearly 50 years and taken him to the heart of conflicts in over 20 countries around the world. And he’s far from finished.
Last month he was in Vietnam researching a documentary in which he’s hoping to reunite the many photographers working on both sides of the war nearly 40 years ago, some of whom were working only a matter of meters from one another, but due to the conflict, never spoke to each other. Returning here so long after the war has been a mixed experience for Patrick.
On the one hand, being here reminds him of his wild coming-of-age; arriving in Vietnam in 1968 was “like walking onto a movie set – but better, because you could choose your own soundtrack!” As his t-shirt unashamedly proclaimed, Vietnam was “narcotic, erotic and exotic.” Saigon was not only the epicenter of one of the most controversial conflicts in modern history, but a high-octane playground for CIA agents, GIs and adrenaline-thirsty young journalists and photographers out to make a name for themselves. He is unapologetic about his original motives for coming to Vietnam.
“As a young adolescent man, I wanted adventure, and sitting in the bar at the Caravelle at dusk watching the sky on the horizon turn red with napalm, I knew Vietnam would offer it in spades,” he recalls.
But alongside the heady memories are twinges of sadness. He tells me that “eight of the ten photographers I worked with in the war died, including my good friend British photographer Larry Burrows.” Some of them remain missing today. Losing friends and colleagues so early on in his career illustrated to Patrick the fragility of life and the painful truth that death is often arbitrary. It’s a lesson that Patrick’s career has taught him time and time again. While in Beirut in the early 70s, he was living the dream “running around after girls and going to nice restaurants.” Little did he know that only a few years later, the city once known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” would be “ripped to shreds in a bloody civil war.”
“We all live thinking that war is something that happens elsewhere, and that it will never happen where we live. But it might,” he says. “One day you may wake up to find full-scale war outside your bedroom window.”
A Thin Line Between Good and Bad
It was also in Vietnam that he learned that war is not about good and bad, friends and enemies – an insight that has been the backbone of his photography ever since. Out on patrol with the US army in 1970, he came across a North Vietnamese prisoner – a ‘bad guy,’ he assumed. But then he heard him speaking French. He struck up a conversation with him and discovered he’d studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. He listened to his story and the penny dropped.
“On the other side of the jungle, it’s not just the enemy, it’s people. It is about humans – everyday people with jobs, friends, families, lives.”
Not long after, the ‘bad guy’ Patrick had temporarily befriended was marched away to resume his life as the enemy, but for a moment, Patrick and the prisoner had been equals.
“This sense of connectedness is what I hope to inspire with my photos,” he continues. He’s realistic – he knows that this type of photography is too much for most. But if he can inspire unity between just a few people, he feels his erratic lifestyle and daily confrontations with death are worth it.
In today’s world, with Twitter and Instagram providing us with live feeds from conflicts the world over it seems hard to imagine that in 1968, the gruesome realities of war had never really been reported on celluloid. Alongside the infamous ‘”Napalm Girl” (Phan Thi Kim Phuc, taken by Nick Ut), Patrick thinks there was another watershed moment.
“A dying American solider agreed to be filmed in the last minutes of his life. Because of the time difference between Vietnam and America, the broadcast of his death in the States actually happened before his death in Vietnam,” he explains. It garnered worldwide attention and war photography acquired a new level of influence. People started asking questions and for the first time, says Patrick, “governments had to be accountable.”
Today, where anyone with a mobile phone can take a photo on the frontline, the role of photographers is changing. Patrick is often asked by news agencies to corroborate a picture that had been sent in by a rebel or militant from a camera phone. “Pictures are an incredibly powerful way of telling a story, but they can be misrepresentative. In the wrong hands, a single picture can come to represent a whole nation, sometimes unfairly.”
As photographers, Patrick and his colleagues have to exercise judgment, and carefully balance the context in which a photo is taken – a photo of a young Taliban member holding a gun to child’s head may make a compelling photo, but is it representative of the Taliban as a whole?
For Patrick, who has spent most of his adult life chasing atrocities around the world, there will always be a need for war photography. The threat of war will never go away because “war is our natural state. You have to know about war to know how to avoid it.” And if anyone knows that, it’s probably Patrick.
Patrick Chauvel has been an independent war photographer since his youth covering conflicts that included the Six-Day War and the American War. In 1989 during the invasion of Panama, he was critically wounded in the stomach by two rounds shot by Marines; Juan Antonio Rodriguez (El Pais) was killed. After the death of Princess Diana of Wales he allegedly saw time-stamped photographs from a speed camera showing the Mercedes entering the fatal tunnel. He has written two books in French – the autobiographical Rapporteur de Guerre (2003) and the novel Sky (2005). He also participated in 24h.comneo media projects and in the Condition One project, and has made several documentary films. He became a laureate of the prestigious World Press Photo Prize in 1995.