A Conversation With author/photographer David Hume Kennerly

By Phillip William Sheppard

five presidents

I first met David Hume Kennerly, the photographer and author, shortly after my first season on Survivor CBS. It turned out that he and his children loved the show.

After quizzing me about everything I was willing to share, he allowed me to ask him about his career and I was impressed and fascinated about his real life “survivor” adventures in Vietnam as a journalist on the front lines, and how he has transformed that into photographing every president since Nixon. 

His life and death situation in covering Vietnam War on the front lines is riveting; and his story about President Obama was revealing about our President’s sense of humor. 

First, who is David Hume Kennerly?

Kennerly won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for his photos of the Vietnam War, and two years later was appointed President Gerald R. Ford's personal photographer. He was named, "One of the 100 Most Important People in Photography," by American Photo magazine.

He was a contributing editor for Newsweek, and a contributing photographer for Time and Life magazines. Kennerly has published several books of his work, Shooter, Photo Op, Seinoff: The Final Days of Seinfeld, Photo du Jour, Extraordinary Circumstances: The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, and most recently, David Hume Kennerly On the iPhone. He was also a producer and one of the principal photographers of Barack Obama: The Official Inaugural Book.

Kennerly received a Primetime Emmy Best Picture nomination as executive producer of The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story, and another film that he executive produced, Portraits of a Lady, made the short list of documentary films considered for the 2008 Academy Awards.

Kennerly is a Canon Explorer of Light, one of an elite group of photographers sponsored by Canon. He is on the Board of Trustees of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, and the Atlanta Board of Visitors of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). His archive is housed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, Austin.

Phillip: Tell briefly about a moment you had in photographing war that you have not shared before, something small yet profound in few paragraphs or less.

David: Being a photographer means that you have to see it to shoot it. You can’t just roll in after the fact, interview a few eyewitnesses, and then file a story. You are the eyewitness.

In August of 1971 my good friend and Vietnamese-speaking colleague Matt Franjola and I were accompanying South Vietnamese soldiers on a, “Search and Destroy,” mission in the Mekong Delta’s U Minh Forest. The area was also referred to as, “The Forest of Darkness,” because it was a Vietcong stronghold. The advent of helicopters and their versatility in combat led to the S&D operations, an idea developed during the “Malayan Emergency” in the 40s and 50s by the British.

That concept naturally migrated into implementation during the Vietnam War. In a nutshell, S&D meant, engage the enemy, destroy them, then hightail it out. The flip side of that was to attack and conquer hostile positions, then fortify and occupy them, an operation called, “Clear & Hold.” 

I don’t think anyone was particularly interested in hanging onto that patch of soggy and inhospitable jungle.

I had been covering the war in Vietnam for a few months, but even at that stage this was already a routine kind of assignment.  For three days Matt and I slogged through the swamps in the 120-degree heat, but the only fighting we experienced early on was with the ever-present mosquitos.

On day two I even removed my wet jungle fatigues and took a field bath by dousing myself with water from a helmet. Matt took a photo of that, and of me wading through the water—two shots that really illustrated what it was like to cover Vietnam. The going was tough, but pretty unexciting, and we wondered when and if it was ever going to hit the fan. We had seen plenty of signs that the VC were in the area, and we figured it was only a matter of time before the battalion made contact.

And then it happened, that familiar cracking noise that a bullet makes as it breaks the sound barrier next to your ear. Then the deluge, concentrated heavy automatic weapons fire that sounded more like a whole hive of bees flying by your head at supersonic speed, but sting from one of those metal-jackets would kill you. The firefight didn’t last long, and we were once again on our way. We had plenty of photos, so it was time to head out. Early the next day we lucked into a resupply chopper that was supposed to be heading back to a rear base in Can Tho, and they gave us a lift. We were happy to get out of the muck. My favorite French restaurant in Saigon was in the forefront of my mind after eating rice and fish for three days, and I knew exactly what I was going to have.

I was daydreaming about that when the helicopter suddenly made a detour a few kilometers away, and swooped back down toward the jungle on what turned out to be another mission. Like it or not we were being dropped back into the fighting. Our chopper was picking up wounded soldiers, so there was no room to stay on it.  Once again we were in the free-fire zone. This time it felt dicier. Although it didn’t happen often, in the back of my mind a little voice, actually a pretty loud voice, said that I might not make it back to Saigon for steak au poivre avec frites maison. Ever.    Matt and I crawled around the LZ, keeping low to the ground as the incoming fire nicked branches off above our heads, and little pieces of fragmented foliage sprinkled us.

The hours ticked by, and we were crouched behind a palm tree when Matt overheard a couple of the ARVN soldiers laughing and talking in Vietnamese on the other side of the tree.  They said that their commanding officer had called in a chopper that was going to land on the other side of clearing in a few minutes, but that he wasn’t going to take us out with him.

Turns out he didn’t like Americans, journalists particularly, and screwing us was going to get him a few laughs back at the base with his buddies. The joke was on him thanks to Matt’s knowledge of Vietnamese.  When the helicopter approached, Matt and I dashed across the open field and dived aboard. Because we were taking fire, the South Vietnamese officer didn’t want to wait around to argue about it, and we lifted out of that little jungle hell to safer territory. The major was pissed off, but Matt and I shared a grin--well maybe more than that.

Franjola died on January 1 of this year. He had battled physical problems for years caused by various bugs that he had picked up in Southeast Asia. If he hadn’t spoken Vietnamese we would most likely be planted somewhere below the ground out there in the U Minh Forest, a permanent part of the landscape.

A few weeks before Matt died we were talking about that particular adventure. He told me that one of his fondest recollections from the war was the look on the Vietnamese major’s face when we made our unexpected appearance on his chopper.

“I’ll be taking that moment along with me when I head to the next stop,” he said.

As for me I’ll always carry the memory of Matt and our time together on those fields of fire. And the fact that I owe him my life.  Tạm biệt người bạn của tôi Matt . . .

Phillip: How old were you when you took your first picture and when did you decide you would be the type of photographer you are and what was your inspiration?

David: I was a young kid in Roseburg, Oregon when I took my first photo, and that lit the fuse for a long career. An early recollection was watching a local newspaper photographer taking pictures of a fire, and his press pass got him on the other side of the police lines closer to the action. That did it. I wanted to be him when I grew up.

My first published photo ran in the high school paper when I was a sophomore in 1962. It wasn’t that great, but seeing something I had taken appear in print further encouraged me to think about photography as a profession.  By the time I was a senior in high school I was selling my photos to local newspapers, and at 19 I was hired as a staff photographer on The Oregon Journal, the state’s largest afternoon paper. 

My biggest inspiration was LIFE photographer Larry Burrows. His “Yankee Papa 13” story that appeared in 1965, the year I was a high school senior, pointed me to the road that I would follow for the rest of my career. I wanted to be like Larry. That photo essay that began on the cover and ran over several pages inside, showed 21-year-old and carefree crew chief James Farley smiling as he carried a machinegun to the helicopter for a mission. Burrows followed him into combat, and as he tried to rescue the crew of another chopper that had been shot down by the enemy.

The dramatic cover picture shows him inside his helicopter yelling as the body of a comrade lay beside him. But that wasn’t the photo that rang my bell, rather it was the last one in the story that showed the young Marine quietly weeping, his head down on ammo boxes back at the base. It was a private and compelling moment that said more about the toll of war than any 100 photos of dead bodies. Farley was a changed man, and so was I after I saw that image.

I was never able to tell Burrows how much he meant to me. He and three other photographers, Kent Potter of UPI, Henri Huet of AP, and Keisaburo Shimamoto of Newsweek were all killed February 10, 1971 when their helicopter was shot down over Laos.

I was preparing to leave the states for Vietnam when this happened. I was replacing Kent Potter at the UPI bureau in Saigon who was supposed to rotate out when I got there in March. Once there, I stayed in Vietnam for almost two and half years to cover the war. Although Larry Burrows and the others were gone, they were beside me every step of the way as I made my way through my generation’s biggest story.

Phillip: What drives your creativity?  My own observation of you is that when you see a picture you instinctively reach for a camera or your iPhone.  Tell me something that you would want a reader to know about your process for creation.  I love the fact that you instantly knew the pic you took of me the other day would be best as a black and white, and shot it that way?

David: Creativity and curiosity go together. Even though I’ve been shooting photos for more than 50 years those words are the cornerstone of my career. But add a third one. Excitement.  I still get excited about taking photos, and when I see one I shoot it, which of course means I have to have a camera nearby. That’s why the smart phones are such great and handy instruments. Now almost everybody has a camera at their disposal, and I’d like to help them take better pictures with it.

Even though I can’t teach people how to see, I can show them where to look, which is why I wrote, David Hume Kennerly On the iPhone.

I’ve also come up with the Kennerly Photo Fitness Workout to help sharpen your photo eye. And you can even safely try it at home! The idea is to go out in your neighborhood, or even in your own backyard, and take pictures of five things you look at everyday but don’t see. Trust me, this will make you a better photographer. And you’ll be surprised at what you’ve been missing. I also suggest employing this workout with your own family members when they’re not aware of you taking pictures—you can get some great ones that way.



Phillip: When you first met and photographed President Obama what struck you about him that you didn’t know, and that most Americans from only observing him on TV wouldn’t know either?  How did meeting him change or enhance your perception?

David: Barack Obama is an incredibly funny guy, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from watching him on television. I think most politicians stick to a game plan when they’re running for office, and even more so after they win. 

In the high voltage and unrelenting media atmosphere that exists these days, there is little choice. Part of that plan includes not making witty comments that rebound to bite you on the ass.

When I first met president-elect Obama, it was behind the Lincoln Memorial, January 18, 2009, two days before he took office. I was shooting photos for the official Inaugural book project, so I had some unusually good access. His soon-to-be official chief photographer Pete Souza was also there, and we were standing around a bus waiting for the next event to start.

President-elect Obama made a comment about what appeared to be some kind of wardrobe aberration that Souza had, (can’t be repeated here), and it was an incredibly humorous, biting and clever observation. I immediately liked the guy for saying it, but sympathized a bit with Souza whom I’m guessing has been a prime target for the last several years of many of his bosses’ rapier-like jabs.

Everyone needs to have a sense of humor, particularly presidents, (and their photographers), but the chief executives have to exercise it in public with extreme caution. Even the most innocent joke can boomerang from some of our less amused citizens to haunt them. Too bad, I prefer people the way they really are.

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