Conchita Fernandes interviews the man behind one of the most important and recognisable photographs in the world.
Forty-four years after it ended, the Vietnam War continues to live in the collective memories of those who endured it first-hand, and those who experienced it, several thousand kilometers away, on their television screens. It was this, the latter, that gave the war an edge like no other—It was the first ever offensive to be televised. In a sense, Americans, and the rest of the world, lived the war, day-by-day, on their T.V. screens. Until then, their only source of information was mostly the print media. However, most publications lacked a holistic view, and often made do with ‘censored’ versions of events. Even when photographers documented local casualties in other parts of the world, the pictures weren’t driven as hard as they should have been, to be seen and remembered.
But… “Dramatic as it was, T.V. footage, in what was called the ‘living room war’ never matched the compelling still photographs that, over and over, revealed the bitter nature of the Vietnam conflict. The still image will always be part of the historical record,” Hal Buell, retired Director of Photography of The Associated Press, had said. No other medium created as much turmoil in the political and public subconscious as photography did, during the Vietnam War. One of its harbingers was Nick Ut, a photographer with The Associated Press, whose single photograph continues to reverberate with the same pulse, as it did, 47 years ago. This is the story of the image, originally titled The Terror of War, but widely known as The Napalm Girl.
Annihilation by Agent Orange
The events leading up to the image you see on the left, unfolded on 8 June 1972, when a South Vietnamese A-1 Skyraider flew over the village of Trang Bang, in South Vietnam, and erroneously dropped four canisters of napalm over a place called Route 1. The pilots were certain that the area was devoid of civilians, and their plan was to eradicate the Viet Cong, who they assumed were hiding there. But 50 yards away from the highway was the Cao Dai temple, brimming with civilians seeking refuge.
At around 8am, Ut had arrived at Trang Bang, and waited with other journalists. Soon enough, the aircraft made its appearance in the sky, dropping napalm over the area. There was a massive explosion. “For a while, we didn’t hear anything. We assumed everything had died. But then I saw a woman emerge from the black smoke, followed by children, more women, even a dog and a cat. They were running on the highway. I just kept shooting. I couldn’t believe that there were people in the village,” he said. Three minutes later, an old woman, who would turn out to be the grandmother of the ‘Napalm Girl’, appeared carrying her one-year-old grandson, whose burnt skin lay hanging off his body. She was pleading for help. “The boy passed away almost a second after I made a photograph of him.”
A moment later, through his viewfinder that was pointed towards the black smoke, Ut saw a young girl emerge, running with her arms spread wide; her mouth, a gaping hole of horror and pain. “I couldn’t understand why she didn’t have any clothes on. I ran towards her, shooting continuously. When she passed me, I saw her skin come off. I thought she would die in minutes. Immediately, I let go of the camera, and poured water over her body. She grimaced and said, “I need drinking water, not for my body,” while yelling at her brother, “Too hot! Too hot! I think I am going to die.””
Ut lifted the 9-year-old girl—Kim Phuc— and some of the other wounded children into an AP van, and drove towards the hospital located in Củ Chi. After examining Phuc’s injuries, the hospital staff were hesitant to treat her, stating that they weren’t adequately equipped. Ut brandished his press card, and informed them of the consequences of averting aid; that the pictures he had shot of Phuc would be in the newspapers the next day. She was immediately admitted.
Years later, Ut reflected on this moment… “When you see people get shot, you don’t just watch and let them die. Remember Kevin Carter and his photograph of the starving child? He killed himself because of it. If I hadn’t helped Phuc, and if she had succumbed to her injuries, I would have killed myself too.”
Questions and Doubts
Leaving Phuc under medical care, Ut sped off to the bureau’s office in Saigon. “Me and the best darkroom person in Southeast Asia, Ishizaki Jackson, who was also an editor, went into the darkroom and rolled the film onto the spools. I had eight rolls. All the film was developed in about 10 minutes. Jackson looked at the pictures and asked, “Nicky, why is the girl naked?” I told him it was because she was on fire from the napalm bombs. He heard that and clipped one negative, and printed a 5 x 7 of it. At the time, the editor on the desk was Carl Robinson. He said, “Oh no, sorry. I don’t think we can use this picture in America.”” Right then, Horst Faas, who was the Photo Editor at AP’s Saigon bureau, walked in and saw the image. He asked who had photographed it. On finding out it was Ut’s image, he yelled out, “Why is the picture still here? Why isn’t it being moved? You’ll think we can’t use it because the girl is too naked?”
With no time to lose, the print was rushed to the PTT office, where an AP operator transmitted it via a radio signal to Tokyo, and then onward to New York. On the other side of the globe, Hal Buell was on standby after hearing the words ‘Saigon is upcoming’. “The picture was discussed for 10 minutes. Even within our own ranks, we didn’t have any objection to the photograph… It was innocence caught in the crossfire,” Buell recounted, decades later. As the picture was relayed to different parts of the world, there was even talk of blurring out the nudity in it. But Faas firmly put his foot down. “He had the clear thought and perseverance to say that he would use the photograph, even though it had a naked, young girl. The image was not about being nude, it was about the atrocities of war, and how innocent children and people suffer because of it,” Ut said.
The next day, the image appeared on the front pages of every leading newspaper and T.V. channel in the U.S. There was a huge public outcry. That the military was using a powerful chemical like napalm, knowing that it caused irrevocable physical damage, in this case, on children, was unfathomable. The uproar reached the White House, where President Richard Nixon questioned the credibility of the photograph. In response, Ut had said, albeit much later, “The picture, for me, and unquestionably, for many others, could not have been more real. The photo was as authentic as the war itself. The horror of the war, recorded by me, did not have to be fixed. That terrified little girl is still alive today and has become an eloquent testimony to the authenticity of that photo. That moment will be one that Kim Phuc and I will never forget.”
The Napalm Girl: The Final Catalyst
In 1973, Ut was awarded the Pulitzer, making him the youngest ever recipient of the award, at the age of 21. In the same year, he also received the World Press Photo award. “It’s a picture that doesn’t rest. Such images of war need to be published because pain keeps you conscious,” Faas had said. Decades later, in a documentary made by AP, he had commented, “I photographed burning children, 10 years before him. In fact, my first Pulitzer has pictures of a burnt boy. The image had a big impact in 1964, but Nick’s picture had additional impact. He wasn’t just somebody looking at you, or in the picture I had shot, of somebody holding a child. In his case, that little girl was running away from the action. The way it was composed, it was different from the earlier pictures. It had something that hadn’t been seen before.”
But there were others, too, whose documentation of Vietnam was on par with Ut’s photograph. Nine years prior to Phuc’s image, two AP photographers had chronicled separate instances of violence— Michael Browne’s The Burning Monk (1963), and Eddie Adams’ photograph of the Saigon Execution (1968). That a person had to set himself on fire, in protest, and that a military general publicly executed a soldier of the opposing side, opened eyes that were previously oblivious of what was going on in the country. But with Ut’s picture, a deep, permanent gorge was created in the consciousness of people. The naked, running child was to be the final catalyst that got the U.S. to finally accept its failure, though it took an additional three years after the image was shot, for the war to end.
The Making of Nick Ut
To understand Ut’s expeditious emergence as a defining voice in photojournalism, it’s critical to grasp the circumstances that led to it. Horst Faas was a significant beacon in Ut’s career. A mentor, and a friend to those who worked under him, Faas was instrumental in turning AP’s Saigon bureau into a hub that constituted some of the most experienced, talented and committed photographers and journalists to cover the war. He even made it mandatory for writers to always carry a camera, while on assignment, and actively sought out local freelance photographers from the region, recognising their importance, with regards to AP receiving the first scoop of significant events.
One of the people he hired was Ut’s older brother, Huỳnh Thành Mỹ, who was an actor before he joined the agency. But Mỹ was killed by the Viet Cong, while on the job, in 1965. Despite losing a member, the family, hesitantly asked the then 15-year-old Ut to approach AP for a job. Ut, though enamoured by photography, thanks to his older brother, was unsure of a career in the field. But money was short, and he had a large family to take care of. He approached Faas, who, at first, was reluctant to hire him. Ut was not only too young, but his family had already lost a son. He did not want them to lose another. Eventually though, Faas relented, and gave Ut a place at AP’s darkroom as an assistant. That’s when his learning began. This was in 1966. “I loved the darkroom. There wasn’t any place like it to study photography in Vietnam. I was handed my brother’s Rolliflex, Leica and Nikon cameras, and practiced diligently. There were also several famous photographers who worked at the bureau. One of them was Eddie Adams, who knew my brother well, and treated me just like one,” Ut said.
In 1968, when the Viet Cong attacked the American embassy in Saigon, Ut went to document the event. “Once Faas saw that I had talent, he said he could not stop me from being a photographer, and sent me out to cover the war,” he said. At that moment, Ut had officially become a combat photographer, the youngest one at the agency.
Kim Phuc: A Life Spent Reconciling
As he continued photographing the war, Kim Phuc was slowly recovering. Fourteen months after she was admitted to the hospital for her burns, she saw, for the very first time, the searing photograph that Ut had made of her. It was a devastating blow that not only reignited memories of that day, but brought awareness to the fact that her nakedness was on display for everyone to see. “I asked myself why he took the picture, especially since I was naked, in agony, and looked ugly. Around me, the other children had clothes on,” she said. It would take several years for Phuc to wholly grasp the significance of the image.
But others had. The photograph was used as propaganda by both the warring factions, who blamed one another for the atrocity. In the interim, Ut visited the young Phuc, whenever he could. However, his visits ceased after the communist forces in the North seized control of the south, thus ending the war on 30 April, 1975.
It was only 17 years later, while she was studying in Cuba, that Phuc met up with Ut. She had almost forgotten what he looked like. Though she vividly remembered the photograph he had made of her, Phuc had spent the last 17 years running away from it. But when they met, what materialised was a lifelong friendship between the two. She now understood the role of the image in the war, and now hers, in the dissemination of peace and goodwill. “I’ve told her many times that in my coverage of the war, I don’t have pictures of several instances where people were wounded and underwent terrible deaths. But you had a picture, and we were there,” Ut said, referring to his and Phuc’s presence at the same moment.
From Hell to Hollywood
Once Vietnam had concluded, Ut was transferred to AP’s bureau in Tokyo, where he spent two years. His work there was a far cry from the pandemonium in Vietnam, and involved covering a variety of beats. Later, when AP wanted to send him to Korea, his passport became an issue—Ut was not an American citizen. So he flew to Los Angeles, and by 1984, received his U.S. citizenship. Since then, until his retirement in 2017, he remained in the L.A. area, covering various beats like politics, sports, celebrities, prisons, fires… “From hell to Hollywood,” he called it.
You can take it for granted that every A-list celebrity to walk the red carpet, or who found themselves on the wrong side of the courtroom, was apprehended by Ut’s camera. He was at court when Richard Ramirez, the serial killer, rapist and burglar, was sentenced to death; when Robert Downey Jr. was sentenced to three years in prison for violating his probation from a previous drug conviction; when Michael Jackson happily jumped atop an SUV, after his arraignment on child molestation charges; when a sobbing Robert Blake was acquitted of killing his wife; of a distraught Paris Hilton being escorted to jail in a police vehicle; and of O. J. Simpson, at various junctures of his trial. Ut’s penchant for recognising emotion and body language, even humour, enabled him to always get the shot. He was always at the center of the action, and often the only one to get the shot that would later be widely used.
However, in 2017, after spending 51 years at AP, Ut decided that it was time to retire. “I grew tired of how vague the distinction had become between ordinary citizens and the media. Whenever I’d step out for an assignment, there’d always be someone with a phone, scrambling for a piece of the action, thus coming in my way. It wasn’t fun anymore.”
Dealing with Past Trauma
“Tragedy and violence certainly make powerful images. It is what we get paid for. But there is a price extracted with every such frame: some of the emotion, the vulnerability, the empathy that makes us human, is lost every time the shutter is released,” Greg Marinovich, a photojournalist who covered conflict and violence in apartheid South Africa, had reflected in the book The Bang Bang Club. Vietnam never left Ut. As is the case with photographers documenting violence or conflict, PTSD is a common reality. “I had nightmares all the time. I couldn’t get myself to see a war movie. Whenever I’d hear a helicopter fly over my home, I’d jump out of bed,” Ut recalls. He also described the time when he was sent to document the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, as being similar to what he had experienced in Vietnam.
Fortunately, Vietnam was the only conflict Ut ever documented. He remembered the time when Eddie Adams admonished him from covering the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. “He told me that these wars were not the same as Vietnam, where the press had unprecedented freedom to photograph whatever they wanted. Today, everything is controlled,” Ut said. Besides, before he had retired, he was fighting a different war in the U.S…. against the paparazzi!
Nick Ut’s Magnum Opus
Looking back at Nick’s career in photography, Vietnam occupies just about the first decade or so of it. Yet, it is his magnum opus; what he’ll always be known and remembered for. Even to this day, he is interviewed about the war, and has never tired from recounting his experiences. By doing so, it’s almost as if he has spent his whole life trying to lessen the burden of everything he had been privy to, in Vietnam. Ut harbours no bitterness, or at least none that was ever made visible to the public. But what he continues to possess is the same curiosity, as his 15-year-old self, for learning, not just about the medium, but of the world around him.
Huỳnh Công Út, also known as Nick Ut, is the man behind the iconic image of the Vietnam War—The Napalm Girl. Ut spent his entire career as a Staff Photographer with The Associated Press, until his retirement in 2017. Amongst winning the Pulitzer and World Press Photo award, Ut is also the recipient of the Leica Hall of Fame Award.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Better Photography.