Jean-François Chauvel and Pierre Schoendoerffer were friends. They had been soldiers, and when they returned to civilian life they chose journalism to continue their adventures, to tell the story of their adventures and pass them on. I loved their stories and wanted to follow in their footsteps.
At a dinner with the two men and their friend Joseph Kessel, I broke into the conversation.
“I want to go away too, just like you!”
“Where do you want to go? And what about your studies?” That was Jean-François being the good father figure.
“Why do you want to go away?” That was Schoendoerffer, Uncle Pierre, as I called him.
Before I could answer, Joseph Kessel’s voice boomed out:
“Let him go, then we’ll see what he’s made of.”
After a long silence, my father said:
“Where do you want to go?”
They looked at one another, and I knew that they were thinking about the war; they knew it well and had seen it at close range. They were the kind of men who had lived the lives they had chosen, in the line of fire, and that was no metaphor.
“There’s the war there.”
“I know, and you knew it when you left.”
My father got to his feet and they raised their glasses.
“Then go there!”
I landed in Saigon on January 14, 1968, and the war was there: powerful, exciting, dangerous, disgusting, unjust, unrelenting, brazen, and goading. “I am the mother of all things, the great force that drives and changes societies. I am their most powerful means of expression. As a Tribunal of History, I assess, judge and shape the world. I make gods and kings, masters and slaves. I am a source of fascination for humans, while peace lives inside my fascination. “I can pit brother against brother, till death. I can wrench a child from his father, a husband from his wife, not one, but thousands or millions, and do so while exalting their sacrifice. “Unleashing violence, I have millions of lives in my hands, and am undoubtedly the least divine cause of death. “I toy with the inner workings of things, as I do with human emotions and feelings. I make everything serve my purpose, be it excess or shortage, a spirit of domination or of shying away, be it rebellion or weakness, courage or fear, heroism or faintheartedness, hope or despair, generosity or selfishness, calculation or error, cynicism or innocence, law or force. When any man seeks to dominate and subjugate, I have him take up arms, as I do for any man who seeks the pursuit of freedom. I use each and every tool at my disposal, whether calculation or impulse, in matters rational or irrational. “Ever since the beginning of the human race, and over the centuries, I, here on Planet Earth, have sent the flames of my fires soaring forth, flaring and rekindling ad infinitum, as battles rage and roar. Never has there been a year, never has there been a site where I have not appeared. But can they comprehend me? Like the sea god Proteus, I change constantly, changing my face and voice for new ones. “I have been the great illusion: nations have seen me as a means of achieving an end, yet it is I who have ended up imposing my unexpected goals on them, I am the undoing of regimes, nations and societies; armies prepared me and, in their clashes, believed they had confounded me, but it was I who ultimately brought the armies down, for none could escape the crucible of my battles. I am an end disguised as a means. “Driven on by my successes, on the strength of my experience of humans and events, I defy the human race to be able to live without me or to outwit me.”
Fifty years on, war is still there. And I am still photographing war, in Africa, the Middle East and through to the gateways of Europe, in Ukraine where war has ended up reconstructing scenes of World War I trenches.