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During the Vietnam War, the mass media played an instrumental role in shaping public opinion and defining how American citizens would come to understand and ultimately remember the war. New media technologies and unprecedented access to battlegrounds produced graphic images of atrocities and death that led to deep divisions in US society as Americans began to rethink the role of the United States in Vietnam. Photojournalism, in particular, galvanized opposition to the war in the United States and around the world. One of the most indelible photographs that continues to dominate American public memory of the war is that of Phan Thị Kim Phúc taken by Huỳnh Cling Út (Nick Ut) on June 8, 1972, in the village of Trảng Bàng in the Republic of (South) Vietnam. In this Pulitzer Prize–winning image, captioned “Accidental Napalm” or “The Terror of War,” a nine-year-old girl, Kim Phúc, runs down the road toward Ut, arms outstretched, screaming in pain as her naked body—her scorched clothing torn off—burns from napalm dropped on civilians during an air strike. In the events leading up to the photograph that would stir viewers and incite action across the globe, Kim Phúc had been fleeing her village with a group of adults and children, including several family members also captured in the image, when South Vietnamese air forces mistook them for communist soldiers. Plumes of black smoke billowed behind the terrified children as they attempted to escape, but they were caught in the fiery blast of napalm. The photograph was published the following day in the national and international press, further fueling the antiwar movement.
Ut's image of Kim Phúc has since taken on an iconic status in the pictorial history of the Vietnam War and, more broadly, the history of war photography. Along with a number of other defining images from the war, such as Eddie Adams's photograph of General Nguyen Ngọc Loan executing Nguyen Văn Lém in the streets of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on February 1, 1968, and Ronald Haeberle's photographs of the massacre at Mÿ Lai on March 16, 1968, the image of the “napalm girl” continues to resonate across time and space. The wide circulation of the suffering body of Kim Phúc has raised critical questions about the morality of warfare and its violent impact on the most innocent and vulnerable victims of war: children. In contemporary politics, the image of Kim Phúc has been reappropriated and inserted into new contexts to incite the public to rethink military intervention and the development of advanced technologies of war.
After taking the photograph, Ut transported Kim Phúc to the hospital, where she underwent a series of surgeries over the course of a year. She survived, immigrated to Canada as an adult, and emerged as an international symbol of peace and reconciliation. In 1997, she helped to found a nonprofit organization, the Kim Foundation International, which provides medical assistance to child victims of war and terrorism around the world.
Schwenkel, Christina. "Phan Thị Kim Phúc (Nick Ut, 1972)." America in the World, 1776 to the Present: A Supplement to the Dictionary of American History, edited by Edward J. Blum, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2016, pp. 833-835.
Nick Ut's given name was Huỳnh Công Út. He was born March 29, 1951, in Long An, a province in the southern Mekong Delta. At the time, Long An was part of French Indochina, but later became part of Vietnam. Ut grew up in a warring nation. By the mid-1950s, North Vietnam and South Vietnam were locked in battle, with the north receiving backing from Communist allies (including the Soviet Union and China) and the south getting support from the United States and other anti-Communist allies.
FOLLOWED BROTHER TO AP
Ut's brother, Huỳnh Thanh My (also known as La), worked as an Associated Press (AP) photojournalist. La had been a well-known Vietnamese actor before joining the press corps. He worked at the AP's Saigon bureau and took care of Ut, who had dropped out of school and gone to live with his older brother. Their mother was widowed and La figured if he left his teen brother home alone, either the Viet Cong or the government would try to recruit him. La joined the AP because he wanted to capture images that told the real story of the war. “My brother hated the war,” Ut told the Orange County Register's Theresa Walker. “He'd say, ‘I want to make a picture someday to stop the war.’”
La never got the chance. As an AP photographer, he spent his time traveling into combat zones with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), taking cover in rice paddies next to soldiers armed with guns. In October 1965, La went to the Mekong Delta to photograph a battle between the ARVN and Viet Cong. He was wounded and awaiting a medical evacuation at a makeshift aid station when the Viet Cong reappeared and finished off the injured.
A few days after the funeral, 14-year-old Ut turned up at the AP office in Saigon asking for a job. AP editor Horst Faas told Ut to go home, but Ut refused to leave, saying he had nowhere to go. Faas hesitantly put Ut to work in the darkroom, where he processed film and made prints of other photographers' work. Ut began taking a camera home and practicing shots. Soon, he was out in the streets looking for photos. Ut never received any formal training in photography, but his time in the darkroom, printing pictures as taken through the eyes of veteran photographers, began to teach him about composition.
BECAME COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHER
Ut could not escape the violence around him and was soon taking photos of the fighting factions. “I'd go out shooting by myself,” Ut told Mark Edward Harris of the Los Angeles Times. “During the war you would see black smoke everywhere, so you knew where the fighting and where the bombing were. I didn't need a map.… I just had my Honda motorbike and wore an army uniform with Bao Chi written on it. Bao Chi means news media.”
In this way, Ut fell into the role of combat photographer. In 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army joined forces in launching the Tet Offensive and the war
intensified. Ut traveled the countryside covering the carnage. He usually carried several cameras, always his Leica and a couple of Nikon Fs. Ut liked the scooter because it allowed him to weave in and out of the traffic, avoiding the refugees and oxcarts that often clogged the streets. In addition, he could push the scooter to 50 miles an hour to escape bullet fire.
Former AP boss Hal Buell told LA Weekly's Gendy Alimurung that Ut may have been young, but he was skilled at the job. “He scooted around making these pictures of battle scenes. He showed the adeptness and smarts you have to have to be a good combat photographer.” But Ut was not immune from danger. He was wounded with shrapnel from a Russian B-40 anti-tank rocket. In another incident, he took a shot to the upper chest.
CAPTURED PHOTO THAT SHOOK WORLD
For Ut, June 8, 1972, started like any other day. He went to take pictures of another battle. In the morning, Ut headed toward Trang Bang, a village located 25 miles northwest of Saigon. The battle for the city had been going on for a few days between the South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. As such, many villagers had gotten in the habit of leaving the city during the day and camping out on Route 1, where they milled about, eating and cooking their meals, waiting for the day's battle to end. Ut was stopped at a Route 1 roadblock outside the city.
Ut watched the battle from the outskirts of Trang Bang. Several other journalists were there, including Ut's competitor from UPI, a stringer for Life magazine and a New York Times writer, as well as several television crews. They all snapped away, taking pictures of explosions and planes all morning. Around midday, rain started to fall and the photographers began hiding their equipment under rain ponchos.
Ut considered leaving. The journalists knew the air strikes would likely stop with the rain because the cloud cover would prevent the planes from finding their targets. Ut was about to head back to Saigon when he noticed that a yellow smoke bomb had been set off. Intrigued, he grabbed his camera, then saw a South Vietnamese Skyraider fly over, followed by a second plane that dipped and seemed to be on course with Route 1. The soldiers, refugees and journalists hit the ground, then saw one of the planes drop a load of napalm bombs on the village. Ut captured the fiery explosion on film.
In the next moments, stunned villagers came pouring down the road. There was a grandmother carrying the charred body of her grandson. The photographers clicked away at the grim scene as the village emptied. Many photographers finished up their rolls of film capturing the grandmother and child. Several quiet moments passed before nine-year-old Kim Phuc came screaming out of the village. She was naked, having pulled off her burning clothes, and was yelling, “Nong qua! Nong qua!” (too hot! too hot!) as the burning flesh sloughed off her body. Ut clicked away as she approached. Many of the other photographers were busy reloading their film and missed the shot. In a time before there were motor rewinds, it took a few moments to manually rewind the film from a camera.
The girl's uncle begged for help, so Ut covered her with a poncho and put her in the AP van he had driven that day. He took her, along with several others, to a hospital. He was anxious to return to Saigon to see what he had captured on film. First, he wanted to beat his competitors, and second, he knew he had to be off the roads by dark or he would face attack by the Viet Cong. Ut told Harris that he sensed he might have something. “I was a very young Vietnamese photographer. I knew I had a good photo but I didn't know what a historic photo was. I took a few more pictures of her, but when she passed [me] and I heard her say ‘too hot’ and ‘I think I'm going to die,’ and I saw her skin coming off, I put my cameras down on the highway so I could help her. I didn't want to take any more pictures because I thought if I did she was going to die.”
After Ut returned to the AP office in Saigon, he developed the day's film. The AP photo editors saw the picture of Phuc, but did not initially select it for transmission over the wire because of a clear policy against frontal nudity. Ut had captured the entire sequence on film, starting with the plane that had delivered the napalm. He also had the explosion and the villagers fleeing the aftermath. Plus the girl. His editor struggled over the decision, but eventually sent the photo. Television footage of the incident that appeared in news outlets on June 9 showed the naked girl from the side only. By June 12, Ut's photo had appeared on front pages across the globe and ended up on several
magazine covers. The photo, which clearly captured the terrible consequences of war, helped turn the tide of public opinion against the conflict in Vietnam.
The 35mm Leica M2 that Ut used the day he took the picture later found a home at the Newsmuseum in Washington, D.C. Newsmuseum director Carrie Christoffersen discussed the photo's resonance with Walker: “It's the combination of complete and total innocence and the horrors of war in one frame, in one shot. It's sort of staring you in the face, and there's no capacity to deny the impact of the war on innocent citizens.”
SURVIVED WAR, SETTLED IN LOS ANGELES
Ut was injured again in the months after he took the picture. He went to visit Phuc at her home, which was located near some supply routes used by the Viet Cong. On the way there he was hit in the leg by mortar fire. A soldier dragged Ut to safety and another AP photographer took him to the hospital. Despite being injured three times, Ut beat the odds. The AP's Faas estimated that 135 photojournalists died in the war. Ut once estimated that 90 percent of his AP colleagues had been shot.
By 1972-73, the United States had drastically reduced its troops in Vietnam and had virtually pulled out by March 1973, leaving a weak South Vietnam to its own defenses. By April 1975 it looked like Saigon was about to fall to the Viet Cong and evacuation orders went out. On April 22, 1975, Ut took a military flight out of Saigon. He was later transported to a tent city at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, California. He stayed there for a month in the company of 20,000 fellow Vietnamese refugees. Back home, his family burned all of his possessions so as to leave no trace for the Viet Cong.
After leaving the camp, Ut found work with the AP and was placed at the Tokyo office. He met his future wife there. They had two children. In 1977, he moved to Los Angeles to work for the AP. Shooting general photography assignments in a large American city was a huge change of pace for the photographer. Editors dispatched him to an Angels game, but, knowing nothing about baseball, he failed to take any meaningful shots. Afterward, he studied the game.
Eventually, Ut found his way. Over the next three decades, he covered earthquakes, fires, and professional sports. He captured celebrities in their worst moments, covering the court trials of Robert Downey Jr. and capturing O.J. Simpson riding through Los Angeles on his way to be questioned by authorities after the double murder of his ex-wife and her friend in 1994. Many of the 1995 Simpson trial photos that went out over the AP and landed in papers across the country were his. He also covered the 1993 trial of the Menendez brothers and was unfazed taking pictures during the riots that followed the 1992 Rodney King verdict as the streets of Los Angeles burned for six days. He photographed the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crash off Port Hueneme in 2000.
Despite the years that passed after the war, Ut continued to have nightmares about his days in Vietnam, and the war continued to come up in his work. In the late 1990s, he took a Veterans Day photo of a woman crying over a grave at the Los Angeles National Cemetery; her son had died in Vietnam. In 1989, Ut reunited with Phuc for the first time since leaving Vietnam. Phuc had defected to Canada, where she married, had two children and became a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO.
As of 2015, Ut had yet to retire. He often expressed annoyance at many of the young photographers he encountered in the business. He complained to Alimurung about photographers who shoot first, then look for the picture later, admonishing those who “shoot 15 frames a second. Too fast. Picture lousy. One frame. Show the best picture. That's how I learned. Look for the picture first.”
"Ut, Nick." Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by James Craddock, 2nd ed., vol. 35, Gale, 2015, pp. 361-363.
Chong, Denise. The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War. London: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Hagopian, Patrick. “Vietnam War Photography as a Locus of Memory.” In Locating Memory: Photographic Acts, edited by Annette Kuhn and Kirsten Emiko McAllister, 201–222. New York: Berghahn, 2006.
Hariman, Robert, and John Louis Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Schwenkel, Christina. The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Brutal as it was, the Vietnam war held a deep attraction for photographers. No war has ever been photographed the way Vietnam was, nor will be again, because photographers had ready access to the battlefield. If you could get there you could cover it, and the military went out of its way to make sure photographers got places.
The quality of the photography was high. Shooting almost entirely in black and white film, those who covered Vietnam were masters of their craft. No other organization in the Saigon Press corps could match the knowledge and experience of the Associated Press. No other had the down-the-line strength in reportage and photography, and no one combined the requisite technical and intellectual gifts like Horst Faas, Chief of Photos for Southeast Asia. On arriving in Saigon in June 1962, he quickly established an operation that would produce three photography Pulitzers. He converted a bathroom to a darkroom and set about recruiting and training photographers, many of whom were Vietnamese.
In the spring of 1972, the story was the Easter Offensive: the first attempt by the North Vietnamese army to invade the South, since Tet in 1968. In June and July, South Vietnamese forces counterattacked. When a sky raider flying over the village of [Trang Bang] mistakenly dropped four canisters of napalm over highway one, 50 yards from the temple where civilians were sheltering, 21-year-old AP photographer Nick Ut was there. As he raised his Leica a screaming nine-year-old girl ran into his frame, the clothes and skin burned from her body by the flaming jellied gasoline. In that moment, Nick's camera recorded one of the most memorable images of the war.
[Horst Faast]: "I mean, take the classic, Nick Ut's Burning Girl.
I photographed burning children 10 years before him, and they were published in 1962-63. In fact, my first Pulitzer has two pictures of the little boy, 1964, I think, that picture had a big impact in 1964.
But Nick Ut's picture had an additional impact. He wasn't just somebody looking at you and somebody holding up the child like in my case. In his case that little girl was still running away from the action and the way it was composed, it was different from the earlier pictures. So Nick added something that hadn't been seen before".
Nick was barely out of childhood himself when Horst hired him in March of 1966. For safety reasons, Nick had left his parents to live in Saigon with his older brother, Huynh Thanh My, a gifted AP photographer who gave Nick his first photography lessons. When My was killed by the Viet Cong, his family pleaded with Horst to hire Nick; they needed an income and had already lost another child to the war. Horst finally agreed and Nick entered the darkroom where he began processing film and making prints. Soon he was going out on Saigon city assignments. He made his first combat photos during Tet and from then on he was a combat photographer.
Nick was at Tran Ban that June day because he had learned from an NBC colleague that the Viet Cong had locked down Highway One. Arriving around eight a.m. with his driver, Nick waited with other journalists.
[Nick Ut]: "I focus my camera footage and shoot the one jet diving drop two bombs, explosion, and I took a picture of the whole thing. Then, like over a minute, I took another one. I took lots of pictures, A-1 Skyrider, see diving, a lot four bomb. I look for bomb coming down and you see napalm explosion. I yelled him, the cameraman next to me, said 'Oh my God, good picture of the bomb'.
You know, after the bomb we don't hear no more. Maybe they all die. And after black smoke I saw first one woman, she wiped her eye because smoke. Then more children and woman, dog, cat, followed them, run on highway.
I keep shooting and shooting. I said 'there are people still in the village'. Then, like, three minutes later, one of the old ladies, Kim Phuc's grandmother, she carried one year boy, her real boy, in her arm, say 'please help grandchild, please help'. She would walk like this with held boy, and she - the skin came off her legs, skin come off, burned so badly.
And when she going, she stop, right, all the media, the camera. We have everybody there on the highway, and she stopped one, like, few minutes, and a boy dies, like, one second when I shot my picture. Well, then I look in my camera view, I looked for smoke, I saw the girl, her arm, just running, open big mouth.
By myself, I said 'why she wear no clothes?' You know? It's black smoke, and why the girl no clothes? Then I'm running and running closer. I kept take picture of her. When she passed me, I saw her skin come off, her burned so badly. I said no, I don't want no more pictures of her/ I think she die in minutes.
Then I had water, I had two cans of water. I put water on her body right away, and she grimace and say 'if you water everything, I will die. I need drinking water, but not water my body'. he tell her brother, he then come. 'I think I'm dying my brother. Too hot, too hot, and I need something to drink'".
Photographer David Burnett was standing near Nick and Alex Shimkin.
[David Burnett]: "Shimkin being right next to him, and Alex was this very tall, very quiet and reserved, big tall guy about 6'6". And you know, Nikki's like, What? 5'5" maybe. But these two guys are standing, we're all kind of just in a row watching this thing play out like it's a theatrical piece or something. I mean we're here, and we're the audience watching this wall of smoke, and the pagoda, and the road goes down there, and the trees on both sides.
And then all of a sudden out of the smoke come these people running up the road, and immediately Alex and Nick realized, I
think, what had happened and they just took off down the road".
Time didn't stop for Kim Phuc either. Nick put his camera down and lifted her and other wounded children into the AP van. They drove to the 12th evacuation hospital at [Cu Chi] where Nick convinced the nurses to treat Kim, telling them that her picture would be published in the world's newspapers the next day.
Then they sped back to the bureau, about an hour away, to develop Nick's eight rolls of film in time to move any pictures out. After about 10 minutes an image appeared of a naked girl. It happened to be the seventh frame on the roll, and Nick recalled his dead brother Huynh Thanh My, was the family's seventh child.
[Nick Ut]: "Yeah, I think my brother gave me. Then you see the picture negative, number seven. This meant my brother, number seven. Very powerful number. When I look, I said: 'unbelievable'".
Nick and his colleague Jackson Ishizaki rushed back into the dark room to make a 5x7 print. At that moment Horst Faas returned from lunch.
[Nick Ut]: "Yeah, Faast could look at the picture. He knows the best picture. He now look at picture, and he ask who the pictures are. And Jackson, another photo editor, said 'that's Nick Ut's photo'. Faast yelling, he say 'why picture still here? Why don't move photo? And all eight of you think the picture we can't use because she naked too much'".
With no time to lose the print was rushed to the P.T.T. Office where an AP operator transmitted it via radio signal to Tokyo, and then onward to New York. At 50 Rockefeller Plaza, Chief of Photos Hal Buell stood by when he heard the words 'Saigon is upcoming in five minutes'. As the signal was recorded on film, Buell examined the image closely.
[Hal Buell]: "So the picture came out by radio and we discussed it for 10 minutes or so around the desk. Nobody, we couldn't even within our own ranks, we didn't have any objection to the picture because it was not prurient--yes, nudity--but not prurient in any sense of the word. It was a horror of war. It was innocence caught in the crossfire. And it went right out, and of course it became a lasting icon of that war, of any war, of all wars."
The picture won the Pulitzer for Spot News Photography in May 1973. At the time Nick was the youngest photographer ever to win that prize. While the world was seeing the agony of an unnamed child, little Kim Phuc clung to life.
On June 9th, the day after the napalm strike, she was transferred to Saigon's First Children's Hospital. Two days later, her parents finally found her there, and took her by ambulance to the Barsky Unit of the National Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in Saigon.
[Kim Phuc]: "And then I just remember when I wake, up and I really remember, is 'why? Oh I wish I am not the [unknown], put me in the birdbath'.
After six months of excruciating treatments, Kim went home to her family. It was more than a year before she saw Nick's picture.
[Kim Phuc]: "14 months after I went home from the hospital, my dad gave it to me, that picture, and he said 'yes, Kim, had your picture.' And the first time I look at that, I say 'oh my goodness, why he did it, why he took that picture when I'm naked, and in agony, and painful?' It look ugly because around me, another children with clothes on, and just only me in the center with agony, with you know, I felt like a little girl, I felt embarrassed".
But gradually, as she healed and as she grew, she began counting the miracles in her life.
[Kim Phuc]: "The first miracle I count on is why that my feet weren't burned. So I was able to run, to run out of that fire, and Nick took that picture. And then the second miracle that I count on, that, yes, I got burned almost like 65% of my body, but my face and my hands still look beautiful".
Another miracle was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Nick and Kim. Although Nick had visited Kim at the Barsky, and made countless pilgrimages to her home while she recovered, she did not remember him. It was not until she was a 23 year old medical student in Havana that she saw Nick again and he became real to her.
[Kim Phuc]: "In my mind they're talking about Nick Ut, the photographer who took my picture. But unfortunately, I don't remember his face. Then 17 years later, when I knew that he will come to visit me in Cuba, I couldn't wait to see him. I knew everything but I didn't know. I have not realized the face, you know. But as soon as he opened the door in the car, he walked out, instantly it comes to me: yeah, that is Uncle Ut!"
[Nick Ut]: "I tell her many times I cover Vietnam War, som - I don't have pictures, people wounded, die so badly, no photo, but you had a picture and we were there.
[Kim Phuc]: "I hold my child and look at that picture. It's just somehow, the picture is so powerful for me that, let me think, I have to protect my children. I never allowed something happen to my child".
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot as he paraded through Dallas, Texas. That same afternoon Dallas police arrested their suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, an itinerant ex-U.S. marine and self-described Marxist-Leninist who had lived in the Soviet Union. Within days Oswald was also dead, shot by nightclub-owner Jack Ruby on national television.
The worldwide publication of the photograph of the self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc brought international attention to the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. The self-immolation occurred on a busy street in Saigon in front of a large crowd.