By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN READING A RECENT ARTICLE ON THE CHANGING PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNOLOGY involved in covering conflicts in the 21st century, from satellites to cell phones to drones to surveillance video, my mind rolled back to the man that, in my younger years, defined not only what it was to be a war photojournalist, but, indeed, how I would specifically visualize the war in Vietnam….that is, through the eyes of a grunt on the ground with a camera. In the days when Life magazine was the premier photo-news weekly (in an era fairly crowded with such publications), Larry Burrows’ (1926-1971) covers and feature articles on all aspects of our tragically doomed crusade in Southeast Asia were the final word on how, if not why, the fight was being waged. His work was tragic, audacious, and strangely empathetic in a way heretofore unseen in combat journalism. He simply changed the terms of the conversation.
Burrows was already a seasoned veteran by the time Life sent him to Vietnam, having begun his career with the Associated Press in 1947, logging hundreds of thousands of miles in battle sites that included Suez, Lebanon, Cyprus and Central Africa, and earning a reputation for both incisive vision and daring among his peers. Moreover, he enjoyed respect across all grades and ranks of fighting men. Burrows was more than a mere reporter on America’s most troubled war; he was also something of an emotional interpreter, reading the ravaged faces and psyches of the men tasked with trying to extract the U.S. from a bottomless swamp of death. The image you see here, known to many editors as “Reaching Out”, reveals little purely military information, but profoundly nails the gut-wrenching realities of shared sacrifice and loyalty in a way that no written editorial or spoken protest could. And yet, Larry Burrows knocked off this kind of eloquence on a daily basis. Like any great photographer, he made it look effortless.
Burrows died in 1971 alongside fellow photojournalists Henri Huet (AP), Kent Potter (UPI), and Keisaburo Shimamoto (Newsweek) when their helicopter was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. In remembering Larry, Life editor Ralph Graves said “I do not think it is demeaning to any other photographer in the world for me to say that Larry Burrows was the single bravest and most dedicated war photographer I know of.”
The group’s communal remains were buried underneath the Newseum building in Washington, D.C., where they remained until the facility, fallen on hard economic times, closed for good in 2019, at which time they were disinterred, and, at this writing, remain temporarily at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, awaiting a new and hopefully permanent burial place. Once more, Larry Burrows is on the ground, surrounded by the men and women who entrusted him with their stories.