November 06, 2018

Through the eyes of a soldier

Dick Durrance II ’61 reflects on his experience as a combat photographer
by Katie Fiermonti

Durrance recently returned from a three-day conference at the Pentagon where he and fellow DASPO photographers had the opportunity to view for the first time the photos they took for the U.S. Army. Sponsored by the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the photos and the photographers’ descriptions will be housed at the National Archives. 

Dick Durrance II ’61 remembers the thwacking noise of bullets shooting into trees around him in the jungles north of Saigon. Through his job with the Department of Army Special Photographic Office (DASPO), Durrance carried a camera instead of an M16, capturing the physical and emotional toll of the Vietnam War in breathtaking black and white clarity.

On November 8, Durrance will bring his photos and perspectives on war to the 9th Annual Veterans Day program at Phillips Academy, which features speaker Rear Admiral Daniel Bowler ’66.

From the moment he reported for duty in 1966 until he was discharged in 1968, Durrance shot gritty, often haunting images. One of his most memorable photos depicts an exhausted, solemn soldier sitting outside his pup tent. A human skull affixed to the top leers above the soldier’s head. Other photos reveal the stark desolation of the bombed jungle, rockets lighting the night sky above Saigon, prisoner interrogations, and the simple sadness of an empty pair of boots.

A Lens on War

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© Dick Durrance

© Dick Durrance

© Dick Durrance

© Dick Durrance

It’s been 50 years since Durrance left the Army, but his experience in the tall elephant grass of Vietnam bears witness to the enduring pain and challenges of today’s soldiers. “The killing is the same. The instinct for fighting resides in us. It is not easy.”

Durrance spent two tours in Vietnam, shooting hundreds of rolls of film. Starting in basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Durrance also kept a journal and took photos for his own use, snapping images of young men getting inoculations, learning how to march, and heading off to Saigon.

But the photos and the experiences took a toll on him. After Durrance came back from Vietnam, he packed away the photos for nearly 20 years. It wasn’t until 1986, when he saw the movie Platoon, that Durrance was inspired to dust off the old images and compile them into a book, Where War Lives: A Photographic Journal of Vietnam. Now a public speaker and photography teacher based in Aspen, Co., Durrance uses his photos to educate audiences about the hardships soldiers face during war and beyond.

“We have to understand how profound the combat experience is,” says Durrance. “For my job, I was mostly photographing combat operations. But on my own, I was looking for pictures to tell the story of what it’s like to be in a war.”

I wanted to try to understand where war lives. It’s part of human nature and history.

Dick Durrance II ’61

© Dick Durrance

Durrance’s first photography course was at Andover, taught by Gordon “Diz” Bensley ’43. “I thoroughly enjoyed that class,” says Durrance. “That’s where my interest in photography flowered.” Afterward, at Dartmouth College, Durrance majored in art and was able to parlay his student visa into a freelance photography job taking photos for an ambitious 44-page story about a student canoe trip down the Danube River behind the Iron Curtain. Published in National Geographic, the story helped him land the DASPO job and paved the way for his future photography career working for National Geographic, then later in corporate and advertising photography.

Despite his long and successful career in photography and the many accolades he’s received, it is his time in Vietnam that’s had the most indelible effect on his life.

“The war is still with me,” Durrance acknowledges in a recent TEDx talk. “One of the best things we can do, to honor the men and women fighting now, is to think of every day as Veterans Day.”



Read more about Andover in the year 1968
and the impact of the years events had on our students.



Top Hero Image: Dick Durrance II ’61 in Vietnam

Categories: Alumni, Magazine

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