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She gave war a face: Mary Cronk Farrell’s book offers close-up on Vietnam War through pioneering photojournalist Catherine Leroy’s lens

UPDATED: Wed., March 30, 2022

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

The letters were the tipping point.

Spokane author Mary Cronk Farrell had come across the story of Catherine Leroy, a novice photographer who at age 21 flew to Vietnam from her home in France hoping to get a few photos of the war published. Her images wound up in newspapers and magazines across the globe.

Farrell thought the story might make a good blog post.

“Then I discovered her foundation in France had some of the letters she’d written to her parents from Vietnam,” Farrell said. “That’s when I saw this as a book.”

Five years in the making, “Close-Up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam” (Abrams, 2022) tells Leroy’s amazing story and features excerpts from those letters as well as many of her iconic photos.

The book has already garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist.

“She was very honest about some things in the letters, but I don’t think she was as honest about the danger she was in,” Farrell said.

Leroy, one of the war’s few female photographers, documented some of the most intense battles in the 20-year conflict. She gravitated toward the fiercest fights, slogging through the jungles and rice paddies alongside soldiers who often didn’t want her there.

“Many of them felt they were fighting to protect the American way, which included their women at home taking care of their children,” Farrell said. “But she spent more time in the field than any other journalists.”

The petite Frenchwoman’s striking photos revealed the deeply human cost of war. Wounded soldiers, civilian casualties, the exhausted faces of the men she trudged beside were all captured by her camera.

“What I did was to give war a face,” she said.

Leroy kept up with the soldiers despite her physical limitations. At 5 feet tall and 85 pounds, she carried half her body weight in gear.

“I’m tired out by the weight of the cameras in my rucksack,” she wrote.

She was thrilled to become the only official photojournalist to parachute into combat with American soldiers.

The dangers she faced telling the story of the war through photos were ever-present. In 1967, she was caught in a mortar blast and injured by more than 30 pieces of shrapnel during Operation Hickory at Con Tien.

“I was so scared sometimes, so scared; I really never thought I was going to get out of this alive,” she wrote.

In 1968, Leroy was captured by the North Vietnamese, but she talked herself free after photographing her captors for a Life magazine cover story.

As Farrell delved into research and writing, she realized that “Close-Up on War” was turning into a different book than she’d originally envisioned.

“I pictured writing about this young woman who amazed me, not a book about the war,” she said.

But giving Leroy’s story historical context proved vital.

“It was very painful,” Farrell admitted. “The Vietnam War is in my memory – having lived through it, it’s not history to me.”

The author kept her teen audience in mind as she wrote. As a former radio/TV journalist, she wonders if young people understand what true journalism is.

“It’s people risking their lives for the facts,” Farrell said. “I’m not sure we’re seeing that kind of commitment to the facts when we turn on the television or scroll the internet. I want young people to see there’s a standard of information.”

Leroy had both a passion for and a commitment to journalistic integrity. The award-winning photographer died in 2006 at age 61.

“I always thought I should succeed because I never gave in,” Leroy said.

That confidence is something else Farrell admires in her subject.

“I love how ambitious she was,” Farrell said. “Sometimes, when you see a successful woman, you don’t always see the hard work behind it. If you want to accomplish something really big, it’s not an easy road to follow your dream. It takes sacrifice.

“Catherine risked her life for $15 per photo.”

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