Tasked with choosing an image that, in the words of our lecturer Professor Sue Turnbull, “can be read in more than one way” as demonstrative evidence of the role semiotics plays in communication, one perfect example immediately popped into my head. As with the Vietnam War context that it was taken during, I chose to look at this photograph by Associated Press journalist Eddie Adams that incited much controversy and misplaced anger.
Evidently, there’s a lot being signified in this image. Taken on 1 February 1968, the man with the gun was General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the South Vietnam National Police. He’s pictured actually firing the weapon into a handcuffed man. With no contextual knowledge, an observer might immediately decode this message as a merciless crime. The uniformed man with the gun perceptibly has an emotionless expression while the victim looks agonized and, importantly, is wearing civilian clothing. Having taken all this in, an observer would be forgiven for deducing that this was a photo of war crime; a soldier executing a civilian, with a callous expression and posture of dominance. This is all signified by the photo, it’s what is denoted by the simple observable traits. What was connoted to worldwide audiences of the era, was a sinister depiction of the extent to which the conflict in Vietnam had escalated to. Among pictures of monks setting themselves on fire, of children scorched by napalm, here was another harrowing signal received by already morally conflicted Americans that the war in Vietnam had intensified beyond acceptable capacity. The photo was viewed as a vile crime, violating international law by executing a surrendered enemy combatant and General Loan was vilified for the rest of his life, even while he lived out the rest of it as a lowly pizza cook in Burke, Virginia, he received death threats. A surrendered enemy combatant was pictured, and filmed, being personally executed in the middle of a street by the head of an organization whose primary purpose was to enforce law and keep control of the unruly masses. Taken so soon after the failure of the Tet Offensive, this had a cumulative effect of souring the public’s perception of War.
However, when we look beyond the initial message that we’re seeing in this picture, the signifier/denotation, and what conclusions we draw, what’s connoted/signified, we can look at it from the point of view from those present and hear their reasoning. As we now know, the murdered man was Nguyen Van Lem, captain of a Vietcong ‘revenge squad’ whose sole purpose was to killing police officers and their families. What wasn’t mentioned in initial reports was that the man had been captured at the scene of a mass murder he’d committed, with seven SVN officers and of their thirty-four families’ bound and shot. With this knowledge, whilst it mightn’t make the execution justifiable, it at least makes it more understandable and even sympathetic to Loan. Certainly, this view was held by the photographer Eddie Adams when he later greatly regretted publishing it saying in an article in Time magazine; “The general killed the Vietcong; I killed the general with my camera.”. An argument is still to be had on whether the General violated a clause in the Geneva Convention, forbidding the execution of surrendered enemy combatants. But others are quick to point out that Lem wasn’t in combat attire and was murdering innocent civilians in cold blood.
My knowledge of this photo came from a presentation from my former high school history teacher who tasked us with examining this iconic photo and deducing meaning from it ourselves, at which point he defended General Loan, revealing the background of Lem and if I remember correctly, saying that’d he’d personally executed members of Loan’s family which is inaccurate. Evidently there’s as much to be said about historical inaccuracy and the fallible nature of human memory as there is about messages being misconstrued. Regardless of your own stance regarding this event, it’s evident that the photo presents enough significance to a viewer to allow them to create a message/sign from it, whether it be accurate or not. What’s your thoughts on this famous execution? Justifiable or not? Let me know in the comments!
(The quote in the title by Eddie Adams, from the same Time article).