Story Behind The The Terror of War: Nick Ut’s "Napalm Girl" (1972)
What’s up photography fans! As you know I usually talk here about all kinds of street photography and photojournalism. The photo I would like to talk about today is a photo that changed the war in Vietnam, a very important photo in the history of photography. Let’s check out the The Terror of War by Nick Ut, 1972.
The terror of war or also known as the Napalm Girl is a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph taken by photojournalist Nick Ut, a Vietnamese American photographer who was working for the associated Press at that time. After his brother was killed in 1965 at the age of 27, Nick joined AP in 1966. First working in the darkroom, he later became a combat photographer just like his brother.
The photo we are looking at was taken with Leica M2 Kodak 400 tri x film as only 400 and 200 versions were available in Vietnam. The camera still exists and is stored in museum in Washington DC.
On June 7 Ut heard about fighting in Trảng Bàng. He photographed the refugees and planes dropping bombs. The civilians were caught in between North Vietnamese who were trying to take control of the village and South Vietnamese troops who were trying to defend it. One of the planes dropped a napalm bomb on North Vietnamese positions. However, the bomb mistakenly hit Trảng Bàng and civilians. Kim phuc and other villagers were hiding in the temple in the village. As the bombs were exploding everywhere villagers ran out from the temple as they thought it will be targeted as well, when suddenly another plane dropped the napalm bombs. People were running out of the location hit by the bomb. Women were carrying burned children.
When Nick looked through he saw terrified children and among them a naked girl (9-year-old girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc) running and crying. As he saw her skin falling away he put down his camera and brought water for the girl. He picked her up and brought her to his car with other children and took her to the hospital. There he found that she might not survive because she had suffered third-degree burns on thirty percent of her body. So he helped to transfer her to an American hospital where they were able to save her life.
When he sent his picture to the AP’s office the photo was actually about to be rejected since the rules for publishing nudity were very strict. In the end the editors agreed that the value of the picture and the news is higher than the reservations about nudity, which is funny because in 2016 Facebook actually censored the photograph. Mark Zuckerberg was accused of abusing his power and after widespread criticisms from news organizations and media experts across the globe, Facebook actually backed down and allowed the photograph to be published. Now, when we think about it, If a photo like this one would be taken today would it be even allowed to be published? Let me know in the comments.
As any other famous photograph this one is also little controversial. At first some people including then president Richard Nixon doubted that the photo was authentic. Ut later said: "The picture for me, and unquestionably for many others, could not have been more real. The photo was as authentic as the Vietnam war itself.” Nixon suggested that the photo was fake and the girl was perhaps burned with oil since no one ever survived napalm bombing until then. The photo was also initially published cropped so the first version was published without the soldier rewinding his film. Nick Ut said in the interview on Petapixel that the soldier was David Burnett. As the civilians were running out of the fire everyone was terrified and all the photographers and TV cameras started taking pictures. David Burnett ran out of film and was desperately trying to rewind it. When he finally did it he also took pictures of Kim. Now, the picture had definitely bigger impact without the figure of a soldier looking like not caring too much, especially when the people didn’t know he was actually trying to document the accident. What do you think about cropping photo like that?
Nick later said. “ I wanted to stop this war, I hated war. My brother told me I hope one day you have a picture to stops the war” and on June 8, 1972 Nick Ut took just a picture like that, a picture that stopped the war. The photograph is said to be one of the most memorable photographs of the 20th century.
As Saigon fell he moved out of Vietnam and eventually settled in LA. He spent more than 50 years as photojournalist. Photographing famous events, politics and celebrities but his most known photo was actually taken at the beginning of his career and in my opinion had the biggest impact.
Ut won a World Press Photo and Pulitzer Prize for the picture in 1973.
In 2012 he was inducted by the Leica Hall of Fame for his contributions to photojournalism
Kim Phuc survived, and she and Nick Ut met again after the end of the Vietnam conflict. Ut said he was very happy when he looked at the picture because it changed the war.¨
If you want to find more information here are some sources and interesting pages: