Catherine Leroy was 21 when she arrived in Vietnam in 1966 with only a hundred dollars, a Leica M2 and a limited professional portfolio. Over the next three years covering the war, she built an exceptional body of work: surviving and documenting a capture by the North Vietnamese Army, parachuting in combat operations with the 173rd Airborne, and being published on the covers of major magazines, including Life and Paris Match.
I had never met Catherine Leroy before doing the interviews for my book Shooting Under Fire in 2002. I had heard the legends, of course; how she arrived in Vietnam in 1966 with one Leica, no experience and even less money; how she parachuted with the 173rd Airborne in a combat operation; how she lived like a Marine and swore like one too; how she was wounded, only a shattered camera around her neck saving her life. Of course I knew the photographs she had taken, the anguished picture of a Navy Corpsman unable to save the life of his Marine buddy, the first photographs of the North Vietnamese Army in action, and many others, not only from Southeast Asia but from Lebanon and Northern Ireland as well. It wasn’t until I opened the front door of my New York apartment that I let in this whirlwind that blew in and out of my life until the end of hers.
Leroy was part of a generation of photojournalists who made their names in Vietnam – some others include David Burnett, Don McCullin, Gilles Caron, Larry Burrows, Tim Page and Dirck Halstead – by taking advantage of the access afforded to journalists there.
“We rode in military planes, did helicopter assaults during operations, walked with units, everywhere, anytime,” Leroy recalled in a 2002 interview with PDN. “We were not subjected to censorship. It was unprecedented, and it will never be repeated again. We have now entered ‘the brave new world’ where disinformation and censorship are being implemented and access reduced to photo opportunities.”
In the same interview, Leroy described her how she traveled to Saigon at age 21, with a Leica and $150 and no combat experience. “I had never heard a gun fired in anger before, and I spoke three words of English,” she said.