Alan Downes, a founder member of Independent Television News and for 32 years one of its most distinguished cameramen, will always be famous for one of the most harrowing images to come out of Vietnam or any other war: the picture of a naked Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, screaming in pain, on fire from napalm dropped by an American aircraft.
Downes was a lively, energetic perfectionist who joined ITN as a boy of 16 and learned the business from the ground up: library, editing, camera repairs, and a thorough grounding in the art of cinematography - though he learnt to use a camera while doing National Service.
He was already an experienced practitioner when we set out in 1968 to cover a crucial period in the Vietnam war, the Tet offensive. The Viet Cong had launched a series of attacks all across the country which shook American morale to the core, culminating in a daring assault on the American embassy in Saigon which nearly succeeded in breaching the fortress-like building. Alan Downes, his sound recordist Tom Phillips and I arrived late but caught up with an exciting report of a battle between government troops and the Viet Cong beside the racetrack. In Hue, the old imperial capital, we filmed the Americans retaking the city street by street, ending up out of power and almost out of film as a cartload of dead GIs was wheeled down the street; Downes hand-cranked the last few feet of film. We finished that assignment by over-flying Khe Sanh, the besieged American outpost intended to control Viet Cong infiltration in the north, filming a C130 dropping fuel, ammunition and food to the beleaguered garrison. Downes stood precariously in the tail of the C130 as the supplies thundered out and floated down by parachute. Two years later, just after Black September in Jordan, Downes again proved his athleticism by scrambling up on top of a radio truck to film King Hussein being carried shoulder high by enthusiast Bedu soldiers celebrating their recent victory over a PLO-Syrian army invasion in the north. …