When the Têt Offensive broke out over the night of January 30-31, 1968, Catherine Leroy, then 23, had been covering the Vietnam conflict for almost two years as the sole woman conflict photographer.
The surprise offensive launched across South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army with the support of its local Vietcong allies culminated in the month-long Battle of Hué — one of the longest and bloodiest of the entire conflict. The important logistical and symbolic value of the former imperial city of 150,000 inhabitants was at stake. Both sides suffered tremendous casualties. The Americans finally regained control of the ancient city that was 80 percent destroyed. But historians agree that, while the US won the fight militarily, it lost the war politically, as domestic and international public opinion strongly shifted against Washington’s armed intervention.
Catherine Leroy was initially accompanied during the Battle of Hué by French journalist François Mazure. They were both taken prisoner and held briefly by North Vietnamese troops in the first days of the offensive, an event that led to her February 16 cover story on her imprisonment in Life magazine. Lesser known until recently is that she actually did travel back to Hué from Saigon, where most of her all-male colleagues were convinced that she was still basking in the glory of her amazing scoop. She would spend a week (February 15-20) covering the intense house-to-house fighting and photographed it mostly in color, an uncommon choice of film in a breaking-news situation. A number of her pictures were published as a ten-page spread in the May 14 issue of Look magazine. The editors used the photographs to publicly express, for the first time, the publication’s opposition to America’s military involvement in Vietnam.
Here is a selection of Leroy’s coverage of the Battle of Hué, much of it never before published >
Following the death of American photographer Dickey Chapelle killed during a patrol in November 1965, Catherine Leroy was the only woman photographer to cover the conflict in Vietnam as a war correspondent between 1966 and 1968.
The American wars of South-East Asia has given birth to a new generation of prominent combat photographers: such as David Douglas Duncan in Korea; Eddie Adams, David Burnett, Larry Burrows, Gilles Caron, Henri Huet, Philip Jones Griffith, Don McCullin, Tim Page, Kyoichi Sawada, and Christian Simonpietri. A predominantly male universe, and often openly ‘chauvinistic.’
With the noteworthy exception of Life’s Margaret Bourke-White who covered the War in Korea embedded with South-Korean troops, the handful of female conflict-photographers after World War II were mostly serving in the military.
During the Vietnam War, women are present mainly as writers: Gloria Emerson, Michèle Ray, and Kate Webb. Women photographers only started showing up in 1969: the Anglo-Americans Sarah Errington, Barbara Gluck-Treaster, and Nancy Moran, and at the same time as the French Françoise Demulder, Marie-Laure de Decker, and Christine Spengler.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Catherine Leroy is all over the world covering wars and other various stories: Somalia, Libya, and Gabon in Africa;; Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Gaza, in the Middle-East as well as Iran where she covers the 1979 revolution and the return of ayatollah Khomeini; Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China in Asia, but also Japan where she focuses on fashion designers in 1983.
She works in Europe too: the troubles of Northern Ireland in 1972, but also quieter other stories: in Italy where she photographs the Vatican and the Venice carnival in 1981.
Catherine Leroy’s archive is still presently being inventoried and, in part, digitized. The few of her 1976 images from Beirut, Lebanon, shown here are part of the selection that earned her the Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Oversas Press Club of America, that year. Leroy is the first woman to have ever won this most prestigous award.