Remembering Legendary War Photographer Horst Faas

When I first met Horst Faas in San Francisco in the spring of 1971, he and Peter Arnett were just starting a trip across the United States to give Associated Press readers a view of America through the eyes of two foreigners, a German and a New Zealander.

For a young AP reporter, it was an incredible opportunity to show two Pulitzer Prize winners some of the sights of a city that was in the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War movement, with a strong hippie culture, a burgeoning black power movement and great nightlife. I recall going to a few clubs in North Beach and ending up at the Buena Vista for their famous Irish coffee at 2 a.m.

Horst’s talent as a combat photographer was legendary. He won his first Pulitzer in Vietnam in 1965, and a second Pulitzer, with AP’s Michel Laurent, for their photographs of Bengali soldiers bayoneting rebel Pakistani militia accused of rape during Bangladesh’s war for independence later in 1971.

In the summer of 1971, I went to Vietnam on an around-the-world trip and stopped in Saigon as a “war tourist” without telling my parents. Little did I know that a year later, in October 1972, I would return to Saigon as the first woman assigned full time to cover the war by AP. Shortly before I arrived, Horst gave the green light to publish Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s photo of a badly burned Vietnamese girl fleeing an aerial napalm attack that had left her naked which won the Pulitzer the following year and remains the most iconic image of the war. But Horst was much more than a photographer and photo editor. Above all, he was a Renaissance man. He was a wonderful writer, able to capture in words the images that he saw through the lens of his camera, and some AP stories from the field carried his byline. He loved art, music, books, good food and good wine. He had an impressive library and was an avid collector of Asian antiques, especially Chinese Ming porcelain. But his taste was wide-ranging and after he moved to London in 1976 he started collecting modern prints. He also had an impressive collection of oriental carpets.

When I arrived in Saigon, Horst took me under his wing, as he did all the Vietnamese photographers and darkroom staff.

I tasted my first bowl of “pho” sitting on a bench with him near the AP office. Late in the day, if things were quiet, he would take me with him when he went to prowl Saigon’s antique shops. After several trips, I bought a blue and white plate, for about $1.50. “You’re hooked!” Horst said as I paid for it. He was right. I, too, became a collector of Asian antiques.

Horst transferred to London as AP’s photo editor for Europe and Africa in 1976 and was a dynamo, organizing coverage of coups, wars, the Olympics and the British royals, to name just a few events he was responsible for until his retirement in 2004. Every morning, he would cycle to work and he’d return home to his art-filled apartment in Kensington the same way. I moved to London in 1982 and worked in the AP bureau and helped cover wars and disasters around the globe until 1998.

There were a number of old Vietnam and Asia hands in London, including Dick Blystone and Bill Tuohy, and I started a Chinese Eating Club. Horst and his wife, Ursula, were members and the club began the eternal search for the best Asian restaurants in the city. Horst also knew all the good pubs and wine bars near the AP and was a good lunchtime and after-work customer.

Though he was sometimes gruff and didn’t tolerate fools lightly, Horst was incredibly generous with both advice and financial help if needed.

When my former AP colleague Jeannine Yeomans visited London, I introduced her to Horst and she asked him about taking photos. He drew a diagram for her about how to shoot in Vietnam in sun, rain, “fast running,” and “for the rest, we save you in the darkroom.” It hangs on a wall in her San Francisco apartment.

As a birthday present to myself in 1993, I returned to Vietnam for the first time since 1973, and Horst and a few others joined me. Horst had not taken pictures since he had been in London in his demanding photo editing job but he went out and bought a Canon for that trip.

We started in Cambodia, spent several days in Angkor Wat and then drove from Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese border where Nick Ut met us with a van. We drove to Ho Chi Minh City, and then up Highway One, the wartime highway of death, past spectacular beaches and beautiful scenery that had been obscured by the fighting.

Two years later, we organized the first reunion of reporters, photographers and TV crew members who covered the Vietnam War. It was held in Saigon on April 30, 1995, 20 years after the city fell and the war ended. There were lots of reunions and war stories, antique shopping, a boat ride on the Saigon River and a memorable and hilarious post-dinner cyclo race back to the hotel. In 2000, Horst and I organized a reunion on the 25th anniversary of the war’s end. And in 2005, we organized another on the 30th anniversary.

Days later, Horst was in Hanoi to give a photo workshop when he suddenly had terrible back pain. He ended up in a clinic and then in a hospital in Bangkok, paralyzed from the chest down as a result of what turned out to be a spinal hemorrhage. He returned to Germany, initially to a rehabilitation hospital, determined to live as normal a life as possible. He got a motorized wheelchair and had his antique-filled apartment adapted to deal with his disability. He traveled to the U.S. twice, to Paris and London, and remained an ambassador for photojournalism and contributor to books and exhibitions.

I visited Horst several times in Germany and was amazed at his fortitude and positive outlook. He accepted his disability and never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him. He wanted to return to Vietnam for the 35th anniversary reunion in 2010 but his doctor said no. Nonetheless, he still had great plans and photo projects, including hoping that his health would improve enough to return again to Vietnam. Alas it was not to be.

At the final dinner at all our reunions, we raise a toast to absent friends.At the next one in 2015, I’m sure, there will be a special toast to Horst, a man who was larger than life in every way and is irreplaceable.

Horst died May 10 in Munich. He was 79 and was an OPC member.