Eddie Adams was born June 12, 1933 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania.
Adams went on to serve in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War as a combat photographer.
One of his assignments was to photograph the entire Demilitarized Zone from end to end immediately following the war.
This took him over a month to complete.
Vietnam War photographer
It was while covering the Vietnam War for the Associated Press that Adams took his best-known photograph – the picture of police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém, on a Saigon street, on February 1, 1968, during the opening stages of the Tet Offensive.
Adams won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and a World Press Photo award for the “Saigon Execution” photograph (captioned ‘General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon‘), but would later lament its notoriety.
On his famous photograph, Adams wrote in Time magazine:
“The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. … What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?”
Adams later apologized in person to General Nguyen and his family for the irreparable damage it did to the General’s honor while he was alive.
When Nguyen died, Adams praised him as a “hero” of a “just cause”.
Later, on the television show “War Stories with Oliver North” Adams called Gen. Nguyen “a goddamned hero!”
Adams also once said, “I would have rather been known more for the series of photographs I shot of 48 Vietnamese refugees who managed to sail to Thailand in a 30-foot boat, only to be towed back to the open seas by Thai marines.”
The photographs, and accompanying reports, helped persuade then President Jimmy Carter to grant the nearly 200,000 Vietnamese boat people asylum.
Adams won the Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club in 1977 for this series of photographs in his photo essay, “The Boat of No Smiles” (Published by AP).
Adams remarked, “It did some good and nobody got hurt.”
Along with the Pulitzer, Adams received over 500 awards, including the George Polk Award for News Photography in 1968, 1977 and 1978, and numerous awards from World Press Photo, NPPA, Sigma Delta Chi, Overseas Press Club, and many other organizations.
Adams died September 18, 2004 in New York City from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Adams felt “Saigon Execution” was not his most important picture and that he did not want his obituary to begin, “Eddie Adams, the photographer best known for his iconic Vietnam photograph ‘Saigon Execution’’.
Eddie Adams Photographic Archive
The photographic archive of Eddie Adams has been donated by his widow, Alyssa Adams, to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin.
The archive documents Adams’s career and includes “Saigon Execution,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. Measuring 200 linear feet in size, the Eddie Adams Photographic Archive includes slides, negatives, prints, audio and video materials, news stories, diaries, notes and tear sheets. In addition to substantive coverage of the Vietnam War, the collection includes his in-depth features on poverty in America, the homeless, Mother Teresa, Brazil, alternative society, anti-war demonstrations, and riots, as well as his intimate portraits of such high-profile figures as Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro, Malcolm X, Clint Eastwood, Bette Davis, Bill Cosby, and Jerry Lewis.
Adams was also the subject of a 2009 documentary feature, An Unlikely Weapon, directed by Susan Morgan Cooper and narrated by Kiefer Sutherland.
Now WE know em