Real heroes are even better

Originally published on our blog The Dark Slide on May 2, 2007

Four days ago I wrote about some of my idols--Charlie Chaplin, Dmitri Shostakovich and David Halberstam. We all have a personal stable of historical figures who we identify with and look up to.

But today I received an email that reminded me that sometimes are heroes can live right down the block. It came from Jodi Rush, the mother of Heather Sigmon, one of my brides from October, 2005. Jodi was writing to tell me that our mutual friend Frank Johnston, one of the great news photographers of all time, was recently honored with the White House News Photographers Association's Lifetime Achievement Award at WHNPA annual dinner this past weekend. (Once upon a time, I would have been at that dinner, but weddings have replaced photojournalism dinners as my weekend activity. C'est la vie.)

Frank was a guest at Heather's wedding to Jose Vargas back in the fall of '05, and I've bumped into him occasionally since then, almost always at the Apple Store in Clarendon. To say that he's is one of the greats doesn't really come close to giving him the respect he deserves. Frank was in Vietnam, he covered Watergate, he was in Dallas the day Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, he photographed the Jonestown massacre in Guyana. The list goes on and on and on. Three times he was named White House News Photographer of the year.

But as I'm sure he knows all too well, you can't really talk about Frank Johnston without talking first about Peace Church.

Back in 1967, while shooting for United Press International--where I would begin my career 25 years later--Frank found himself trapped inside a tiny Catholic church in An Hoa, South Vietnam. It was known simply as Peace Church. Needless to say, peace was nowhere to be found that day.

Quite simply, I believe--and I'm not alone--that Frank's photograph of the haggard and scared Marine looking up from inside of Peace Church, the large wooden crucifix of Jesus looming behind him, is the most haunting photograph to come out of the whole war. 72 dpi on a blog can't do this photograph justice.

Now, certainly there are other great photographs from Vietnam, most of which I don't even need to link to. They are fixed in our brains: Eddie Adams' Saigon execution, Nick Ut's tragic photo of a naked girl running down a street after being napalmed, and Catherine Leroy's image of a Marine realizing his buddy is dead are among the greatest news photographs ever captured. But Peace Church is different. For all the action of those three famous photographs, Peace Church is just so darned quiet.

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