Loan and Lém. Saigon, 1968.

If ever a war produced a ‘Decisive Moment’ it’s this Eddie Adams Pulitzer-winning shot straight from the vanguard of photojournalism.

Nguyen Van Lem; Bay Lop

South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, fires his pistol into the head of Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lém. Saigon, Feb. 1, 1968.

The image has always stayed with me. It spoke of brutality and a stark disregard for human life; it’s one pretty good encapsulation of death, pardon the oxymoron. I always assumed it was an indiscriminate execution until I read an Eddie Adams obituary article a few years ago.

Lém, the photograph’s victim, had just killed South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan, his wife, their six children, and his 80-year-old mother. Loan was a personal friend of Tuan and his family.


Given this informational context, I view the photograph differently. However perverse this may be, I see Loan as the victim and Lém as the perpetrator. Alternatively, I see the photograph as a tabula rasa.

Loan fled South Vietnam during the fall of Saigon, and subsequently moved to the United States, opening a pizza restaurant in Burke, Virginia. He retired in 1991 after his identity was disclosed.

Adams later apologised to General Nguyen and his family for the effect the photograph had on his life.

Further viewing:

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