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A tribute to one of America’s first female photojournalists

December 26, 2015 at 4:57 PM EST
In 1965, photographer and writer Dickey Chapelle was killed in Vietnam, becoming the first female American journalist to be killed covering a war. In the new book, "Dickey Chapelle Under Fire," author John Garofolo talks about Chapelle's work, influence, and career choice at a time when few women entered the profession. NewsHour's Megan Thompson interviews Garofolo about this first compilation of her work. Photos courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society & the Meyer Family collection.
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MEGAN THOMPSON: Starting in the 1940s, Dickey Chapelle was one of America’s first female photojournalists to go to war zones…from Panama to Vietnam. Life Magazine, National Geographic, and Reader’s Digest all published her work.

Her first combat assignment, for the publisher of Women’s Day, was during World War II. She covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where she photographed wounded soldiers on a hospital boat.

This photo – of an injured soldier waiting for medical treatment — was one of her most widely published.

JOHN GAROFOLO, AUTHOR: Dickey was definitely a feisty personality.

MEGAN THOMPSON: John Garofolo is the author of the new book “Dickey Chapelle Under Fire,” the first compilation of her work.

JOHN GAROFOLO: As a reporter, she felt she needed to go to where the story was in spite of what might be the consequences to herself.

MEGAN THOMPSON: In Okinawa, Chapelle defied U.S. Navy orders to stay on the hospital ship and followed Marine medical units to the front lines, documenting the horror of one of the war’s bloodiest battles.

JOHN GAROFOLO: She really had a motive of trying to do good with her photography, and perhaps say that war is something that we shouldn’t do.

And, she was also very concerned about the consequences on the people who not only fought wars but also the civilians who were very often in the crossfire.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Chapelle often wore pearl earrings with her combat fatigues as a visual cue that she wasn’t one of the boys.

JOHN GAROFOLO: She really wasn’t necessarily welcomed with open arms really throughout her career. But in spite of that, she did persevere and she did manage to continue on past all the objections she met for years throughout her career.

MEGAN THOMPSON: In 1956, Chapelle went to Hungary during the uprising against Soviet rule, and she secretly photographed refugees with a hidden camera for LIFE magazine. She was caught, accused of being a spy, and held in solitary confinement in Hungary for almost two months.

Over the next decade, she covered conflicts and revolutions in Lebanon, Cuba, and Algeria. She wrote about her unconventional career in her autobiography, “What’s a Women Doing Here?”

In 1961, she became the first female journalist to parachute-jump with u-s troops in Vietnam. This 1962 photo for National Geographic was the first time a U.S. soldier was shown actively engaged in combat in Vietnam.

JOHN GAROFOLO: Apparently the Pentagon kind of pushed back to National Geographic and said, hey, we prefer that you not run that.

But to their credit, National Geographic chose to run it anyway. And so that photograph ended up winning Dickey the 1963 National Press Photographers Association “Photo of the Year.”

MEGAN THOMPSON: In 1965, Chapelle returned to Vietnam embedded with a Marine unit. When a Marine triggered a booby trap, shrapnel struck Chapelle in the neck and killed her. She was 46.

JOHN GAROFOLO: There was something that was bigger to that story than just her going out and getting it.

It was the importance of what she was telling. The story had a fundamental righteousness that I think was appealing to her.

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