Vietnam War Photojournalist Catherine Leroy, 60

Jul 11, 2006

By Donald R. Winslow

 In 1968 Catherine Leroy, one of the first female combat photographers of the Vietnam War era, surprised her North Vietnamese captors by photographing and interviewing them when they returned her cameras as they released her from detention. The photograph ended up on the cover of Life magazine. Leroy died this week from cancer, in hospital in Santa Monica, CA.

Leroy was a Parisian and reportedly 60 when she died, but her age is not verified. The photojournalist is survived by her 91-year-old mother, who lives in France. The French Embassy has said they are handling arrangements for Leroy's body to be returned to her homeland.

Leroy was the first woman to win the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for conflict photography from the Overseas Press Club in New York, in 1976.

Many American soldiers along with male war correspondents were shocked to see Leroy in 1966 when she landed in Vietnam on a one-way ticket from Paris through Laos to Saigon, with her small Leica in hand. She was only 21 (or thereabouts) and her diminutive presence, at five feet tall and less than 90 pounds, didn't match the profile of the average foreign war correspondent. As a Parisian girl growing up in a convent school she said that she weekly studied each new Paris Match magazine. When she was much older and reflecting upon her career Leroy said in an interview that as a child, "Photojournalists were my heroes. When I looked at Paris Match as a girl, to me that was an extraordinary window to the world." Influenced by the magazine's strong photojournalism and images of conflict on its pages, Leroy knew even then that she wanted to photograph war. And there was one going on at the time, in Vietnam.

"Catherine Leroy entered a totally masculine world: war and war photojournalism," says Marianne Fulton, author of the book Eyes of Time: Photojournalism in America, who is the former senior curator of exhibitions and photographic collections at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House.

"She worked in the tradition of Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa. In Vietnam, she was cool under fire and one of the few woman photographers in the thick of the fighting and dying. Like Capa, she wanted to show war up close and personal. In one of her photographic sequences from Vietnam (1967), corpsman Vernon Wike applies first aid to a downed buddy, listens for a heartbeat, and then looks up from the body with an anguished and confused look having realized that the Marine is dead. The last photo shows the dead Marine alone - the landscape destroyed and the horizon blank. The series is a powerful reality check about the Vietnam War."

Last year Leroy told Steven Winn of the San Francisco Chronicle that on her one-way flight into Vietnam she met someone who was the friend of Life magazine photojournalist Charles Bonnay, who was already there covering the war. Her flight companion introduced her to Bonnay, who helped Leroy make connections with the right people to get press credentials, and almost unbelievably she was off to the battlefields, just that quick, with no experience photographing war other than the pictures she'd seen in magazines.

And Leroy didn't just photograph the war from the sidelines. She jumped in feet first, literally. Thanks to a former boyfriend who taught her how to sky dive, in 1967 she was a licensed parachutist when she joined up with the 173rd Airborne Division and jumped along with them into a combat operation, becoming the only known accredited journalist – male or female – to jump into combat with American troops at war.

LeRoy Woodson Jr., the editor of MilitaryWeek.com, remembers a story that Leroy told him many years later when they talked in Paris in 1981. It's her story about the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and she happened to be in the New York offices of Look magazine. "The Look magazine photo editor asked her to go to Harlem to take reaction pictures," Woodson says. "So Cathy, her blond pigtails and her Leicas in hand, set off for Harlem at this highly sensitive and charged moment. On arrival she got into trouble almost at once. She was surrounded by a hostile crowd that wanted to relieve her of her Leicas. It was a tense moment, when suddenly a voice penetrated the crowd: 'Cathy, what are you doing here?' It came from a former member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade with whom she had made a combat jump in Vietnam. He rescued her and took her home to his Mamma for a home cooked meal."

In 1965, Dirck Halstead was running the UPI photo bureau in Saigon and remembers Leroy's arrival. "Catherine was a tough little bird. She walked into my office at the UPI bureau wanting to be accredited by the Military Assistance and Advisory Group, Vietnam (MAAG). We got her a press card, and she was off to war.

"As a photographer, she was a novice at best in those days. But she had a lot of courage. She gravitated towards the biggest fights. She also had a formidable libido. To Catherine, a rifle platoon translated into 'smorgasbord.'" "She learned her English while traveling with the troops out in the boondocks. As a result she had the foulest mouth I've ever heard, but she thought that's how you spoke English."

Halstead, who is now publisher of The Digital Journalist, worked with Leroy again in Beirut in the summer of 1982. "During this assignment she was kidnapped by fighters, whom she called 'wankers,' who had decided to shoot her. But she managed to escape just by running for her life."

Halstead said that in later years Vietnam became an obsession for her. "She wanted to preserve the works of photographers who covered that war. So last year she published the book Under Fire: Vietnam War Photographs which contained many of the photographs of her colleagues from Vietnam."

Vietnam may have been the first conflict she covered with a camera, but she later covered many more including Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Photojournalist David Burnett was covering Vietnam for Life magazine but he knew Leroy best years later, in Iran, during the revolution of 1979. "Catherine was nothing if not determined," Burnett told News Photographer magazine. "She was a tough cookie and she knew what she wanted, and she was not in the habit of dealing kindly with fools. Some of her images from Vietnam were the most powerful, personal, and heartbreaking of the war."

Burnett says Leroy made an enormous effort to bring the photography exhibit of Vietnam photographs "Under Fire" to Washington, DC, to be an outdoor exhibit near the Vietnam Memorial Wall. "But she ran into bureaucratic idiocy at every turn. I can still hear the disgust in her voice as she related a conversation with a U.S. Park Service planner who said the show would be a 'potential security threat.'

"Sadly I recently went to the 'Under Fire Vietnam' photo gallery on the Web site to listen to the photographers' interviews and on her page, when you click on 'Listen to Interview,' Catherine's page says, 'Coming Soon.' Sadly, we won't ever get to hear that voice again."

"I greatly admired her for her guts, and for her work, and for never losing her femininity," John G. Morris said from his home in Paris. Morris was a member of the Overseas Press Club jury that voted for Leroy to win the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for photography in 1976 for her coverage of Beirut. Morris is the retired picture editor of The New York Times and was executive editor of Magnum Photos. The Capa Award is the highest honor that can bestowed on a conflict photographer.

Leroy also co-authored a book with Tony Clifton about Israel's 1982 attack on Beirut called God Cried, and co-directed a documentary film about Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic called "Operation Last Patrol" in 1972.

Morris also remembers other female photographers who covered Vietnam in addition to Leroy, photographer Nancy Moran - who had previously worked on The New York Times photography desk - and Dickey Chappell, the first female war correspondent killed in action (November 4, 1965), who like Capa was killed in Vietnam by a land mine.

Associated Press photojournalist Neal Ulevich covered the Vietnam War for AP and he remembers that in addition to Leroy there were a few other female photojournalists who covered the conflict in Southeast Asia.

"Sarah Errington arrived a few days before the fall of Saigon and stayed for some months afterwards," Ulevich remembers, "and Christine Spengler covered the war in Vietnam and Cambodia (as stringer for AP). Sarah Webb Barrell was a stringer for The New York Times, and Barbara Gluck Treaster took photos mainly for The New York Times. Francoise Demulder covered Vietnam (and later won a World Press Photo award for her work in Lebanon). Of course there were quite a number of women writers who carried cameras, but they were not - strictly speaking - photojournalists."