Vertical histories

Jeremy Wagstaff
11 min readSep 16, 2021

How we shoot and watch video is changing, and with it the way we engage with the world

The two iconic images of the fall of Kabul involve a C-17 taking off from Hamid Karzai Airport. It’s as searing as the helicopter perched atop an apartment complex in Saigon, a stream of Vietnamese climbing the ladder to the roof in the hope of getting aboard.

Hubert Van Es / United Press International, the roof of 22 Gia Long Street, Saigon, April 29 1975

In Kabul, 46 years later, we have something similar, but now the photographer is not a UPI photographer called Hubert Van Es, back at the office developing film:

If you looked north from the office balcony, toward the cathedral, about four blocks from us, on the corner of Tu Do and Gia Long, you could see a building called the Pittman Apartments, where we knew the C.I.A. station chief and many of his officers lived. Several weeks earlier the roof of the elevator shaft had been reinforced with steel plate so that it would be able to take the weight of a helicopter. A makeshift wooden ladder now ran from the lower roof to the top of the shaft. Around 2:30 in the afternoon, while I was working in the darkroom, I suddenly heard Bert Okuley shout, “Van Es, get out here, there’s a chopper on that roof!”

I grabbed my camera and the longest lens left in the office — it was only 300 millimeters, but it would have to do — and dashed to the balcony. Looking at the Pittman Apartments, I could see 20 or 30 people on the roof, climbing the ladder to an Air America Huey helicopter. At the top of the ladder stood an American in civilian clothes, pulling people up and shoving them inside.

After shooting about 10 frames, I went back to the darkroom to process the film and get a print ready for the regular 5 p.m. transmission to Tokyo from Saigon’s telegraph office. In those days, pictures were transmitted via radio signals, which at the receiving end were translated back into an image. A 5-inch-by-7-inch black-and-white print with a short caption took 12 minutes to send.

It’s beautifully framed, the chopper and the building, with its tiny shack on the roof, the empty space in the upper right of the screen, the eyes drawn up the rising tide of humanity towards the diplomat in his shirt sleeves, either reaching to help or reaching to hold back, we are unsure. We want to know what will happen — will they all make it? (No, Hubert says, this was…

--

--

Jeremy Wagstaff

Recovering journalist, deluded ambient composer, historian manqué, consultant, commentator, etc. ex Reuters, WSJ, BBC, Southeast Asia