Horst Faas, prizewinning war photographer, dies at 79

Horst Faas, a German-born combat photographer whose calm under fire helped him capture searing portraits of life and death in Vietnam and other war zones in Asia, earning him two Pulitzer Prizes, died May 10 at a hospital in Munich. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by the Associated Press, Mr. Faas’s employer from 1956 to 2004. He had complications from paraplegia, caused by a spinal hemorrhage in 2005, said Richard Pyle, an AP reporter who worked with Mr. Faas in Vietnam.

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Mr. Faas — who covered despots, terrorists and soldiers during times of war — witnessed much of the world’s modern history through the lens of his Leica.

As chief of photo operations for the AP bureau in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, Mr. Faas had a keen eye for provocative imagery. He selected for distribution perhaps the war’s most memorable photograph: the summary killing of a Viet Cong prisoner by a pistol shot to the head. The picture, taken in 1968 by Eddie Adams, came to embody the violence in Vietnam.

That Mr. Faas seemed so comfortable in war zones was largely due to his childhood in Berlin during World War II. He endured obligatory service in the Hitler Youth and felt the ground rumble from Allied shelling.

In Vietnam from 1962 to 1970, he moved gingerly through the swamps and jungles despite his bulky, muscular frame. His courage earned him the respect of many of the war’s top journalists, including the late David Halberstam of the New York Times and Peter Arnett of the AP.

In an e-mail to The Washington Post, Arnett called Mr. Faas “the most experienced and most sophisticated” journalist of the war.

“Horst was absolutely fearless on the battlefield,” Arnett wrote. “Horst also had an uncanny sense of the ebb and flow of action, positioning himself for the best pictures and then methodically, commandingly, clicking off his film.”

A 1965 Time magazine profile of Mr. Faas said he had an “intelligence network . . . second only to that of the Viet Cong.”

Halberstam, who died in 2007, wrote a profile of Mr. Faas in 1997 for Vanity Fair magazine. Halberstam wrote that the photographer’s work had caught the attention of Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam. The general “adored Horst — this brave young foreigner who seemed to spend all his time in the field and whose photos did not seem particularly political.”

Mr. Faas won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for his haunting photographs of the war, including one picture in which a father holds the limp body of his dead child up to a group of South Vietnamese army rangers. Another photo shows a U.S. soldier staring into Mr. Faas’s camera, with the words “WAR IS HELL” printed on his helmet.

In 1967, Mr. Faas was struck in the leg by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade while on a patrol. He nearly died from loss of blood but persuaded surgeons at a hospital to let him keep his leg.

After his injury, Mr. Faas was confined to the Saigon bureau, where he edited photos and managed the AP’s freelancers. One of the young talents he recruited was Nick Ut, the Vietnamese photographer whose 1972 picture of a naked 9-year-old girl fleeing a napalm attack became an instantly recognizable image of the war.

During the 1968 Tet offensive, Mr. Faas was looking at photos on his lightboard and one picture stood out. It was Adams’s Feb. 1, 1968, photo of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by Vietnam’s national police chief, then-Lt. Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan.

The Viet Cong operative, in a plaid shirt with his hands bound behind his back, grimaces as Loan’s pistol delivers the fatal bullet to the man’s head.

It was “the perfect news picture,” Mr. Faas said in 2004, “the perfect framed and exposed ‘frozen moment’ of an event which I felt instantly would become representative of the brutality of the Vietnam War.”

In 1970, Mr. Faas became the AP’s roving photographer in Asia. Two years later, he and Michel Laurent received a Pulitzer for their photographs of Bengali thugs bayoneting to death four men accused of rape and murder during the conflict that led to Bangladesh’s independence. (Lau­rent was one of the last journalists killed during the Vietnam War, dying in 1975.)

Mr. Faas moved to London in 1976 and served as AP’s senior photo editor for Europe until his retirement in 2004.

Horst Faas was born in Berlin on April 28, 1933, and moved with his family to Munich after World War II. He began his career in 1951 as a dark-room clerk at a photo agency in Germany.

Survivors include his wife, Ursula Faas of Munich, and a daughter.

Mr. Faas worked for the AP in Congo and Algeria during a period of strife in the 1960s.

In Algeria, Mr. Faas’s photos of a secretive guerrilla army nearly got him killed in the early 1960s. One day, a man invited him into a cafe for some absinthe. Once inside, the man pointed a gun at Mr. Faas.

“I heard him cocking the pistol,” Mr. Faas told Time magazine in 1965. “I thought, ‘Now I get it.’ He fired twice, zip zip, a round went by each ear. Then he bought me another absinthe. ‘Next time we will kill you.’ ”