Close-Up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam

Close-Up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam
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Release Date
March 22, 2022
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From award-winning journalist and children’s book author Mary Cronk Farrell comes the inspiring and fascinating story of the woman who gave a human face to the Vietnam War. Close-Up on War tells the story of French-born Catherine Leroy, one of the war’s few woman photographers, who documented some of the fiercest fighting in the 20-year conflict. Although she had no formal photographic training and had never traveled more than a few hundred miles from Paris before, Leroy left home at age 21 to travel to Vietnam and document the faces of war. Despite being told that women didn't belong in a “man’s world,” she was cool under fire, gravitated toward the thickest battles, went along on the soldiers’ slogs through the heat and mud of the jungle, crawled through rice paddies, and became the only official photojournalist to parachute into combat with American soldiers. Leroy took striking photos that gave America no choice but to look at the realities of war—showing what it did to people on both sides—from wounded soldiers to civilian casualties.

Later, Leroy was gravely wounded from shrapnel, but that didn’t keep her down more than a month. When captured by the North Vietnamese in 1968, she talked herself free after photographing her captors, scoring a cover story in Life magazine. A recipient of the George Polk Award, one of the most prestigious awards in journalism, Leroy was one of the most well-known photographers in the world during her time, and her legacy of bravery and compassion endures today.

Farrell interviewed people who knew Leroy, as well as military personnel and other journalists who covered the war. In addition to a preface by Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam War photographer Nick Ut and a foreword by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Peter Arnett, the book includes an author’s note, endnotes, bibliography, timeline, and index.

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Groundbreaking Photojournalist
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At the age of 21, Leroy set out with just a camera, limited English language skills, and a desire to document the Vietnam Conflict. As a free lance photographer not affiliated with a major publication, she only got paid for photographs that she was able to sell. After photographing a USO tour with the entertained Ann-Margret, she managed to get permission to join the 101st Airborne Division on patrol of South Vietnam. She managed to get attached to the First Calvary, since she was interested in documenting the battlefields. This was difficult, since she was very tiny, and had to carry all of her equipment and manage to survive. Conditions in Vietnam were brutal, and she would often be in the field for over a month, with no chance to even change clothing. She managed to get her photographs into Life magazine, and was constantly looking for other outlets for her work. She even managed to be allowed to jump from a plane, and was one of the few journalists ever allowed to do this. Once her photographs started to gain interest, she evern wrote a few articles for publications like the London Times. At every turn, she had to fight discrimination that she faced just for being a woman, but she didn't give up. She was injured badly when she was attached to Golf Company, and spent time in the hospital with a fractured jaw and other wounds from shrapnel. In 1968, she won the George Polk Award for news photography, but after three years in Vietnam was suffering from shell shock. She continued to work in the field of photojournalism, and was offered a contract by Time magazine in 1977. She covered an array of world events, such as the 1979 Iranian revolution and the civil was in Lebanon. In 2006, she was diagnosed with cancer and passed away very shortly after.
Good Points
There are not as many books about Vietnam as my students want to read, and this is a different view of this historical place and time. While there is plenty of military action, there's also a good story of female empowerment, and an interesting look at freelance journalism. The world was certainly not ready for Leroy to head off to war; she had to have a uniform tailored to fit her 5' frame, and had to wear boots that were too big, but she never gave up. This is a great message for young readers, and I always love to see biographies of people unknown to me.

While it's interesting that Farrell was inspired to write this biography because of Leroys' letters, which are excerpted here, it was strange how quotidianal they were. Some of them sounded like she was in Saigon for a semester abroad, with requests for items of clothing and supplies. On the one hand, it did add a humanizing aspect to the book, but excerpts more related to the war might have made more sense, if they even existed. I did love how the chapters started with facsimiles of the letters-- typewritten, with fold marks visible.

The formatting of this book is very successful. High quality paper is used throughout, making for a rather heavy, dense book, but the plentiful pictures break up the text nicely. The letters and chapter headings are matted on an army green cloth-like background that is very arresting.

There is a complete index, as well as a chapter on how cameras worked in the 1960s, and a helpful glossary of terms.

Farrell does such a great job of highlighting little known historical facets involving women with books such as Standing Up Against Hate, Fannie Never Flinched, and Pure Grit. This is a great addition to books about Vietnam like Partridge's Boots on the Ground, Townley's Captured, and Freedman's Vietnam.
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