Photojournalist reflects on iconic ‘Napalm Girl’
“I looked back into the black smoke and I saw a girl running with her arms stretched out and no clothes on,” Ut told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul.
“Napalm Girl” is part of the current Pulitzer Prize Photography exhibition at the museum.
“I asked myself why she was not wearing any clothes and started to click the shutter of my Leica camera. Then, when she passed me by, I saw her left arm and body was burnt so badly you could actually see her skin come off.”
The napalm-filled explosive wiped out Trang Bang within a second. The bomb was dropped by a U.S. plane that had mistaken the fleeing villagers for the enemy, the Viet Cong.
Along with other journalists, the 19-year-old Associated Press photojournalist watched as people ran screaming out of the black smoke onto Highway 1. They bore witness as infants died in the arms of their mothers and tearful children cried out.
“I saw an old lady that looked about 70 years old. She was holding a baby in her arms, screeching for help,” said Ut. “But a minute later the baby died and the journalists kept taking photos of them.”
Q. What first came to mind when you saw the bomb falling?
A. When the third bomb dropped out of the A-1 Skyraider, I knew it was a napalm bomb because the way they fall is much slower than other bombs.
I hoped everybody had left the village and that no one was there.
What did you do with the girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, after you took the photo?
I had water, so I poured it on her body. Then I borrowed a raincoat from one of the soldiers on the road and covered her with it because I knew a lot of cameras were there and I didn’t want them to take too many photos of her when she was naked.
While I was carrying her to a nearby hospital, she kept saying, “I think I’m dying.” She couldn’t even lean back on the chair because the skin on her back was melting off, so she hunched her body forward.
I kept telling her I was sure we would be there soon. By the time we arrived at the hospital, the staff said they couldn’t admit any more people because there were so many wounded soldiers, and because they didn’t have enough medicine. So I took out my media pass to get her into the hospital. It wasn’t my job, but I needed to do something to help Kim Phuc.
What was the response in the newsroom when you returned with the photo?
People in the newsroom were angry about why I had taken a photo of a naked girl because they believed it couldn’t be used on any of the newspapers’ front pages. I told them that the photo was not about a naked girl, but about a war.
At the same time, I also thought we couldn’t get the picture on the front page of any paper, because there had never been an image published that was as extreme in nakedness before.
However, my boss defended the photo by saying that it represented war. He said “she was not naked by herself. It’s a bomb that did it to her.”
And soon, all the New York papers published the full picture with no part of it censored.
Your brother was also a combat photographer before he died on the battlefield during the Vietnam War. What do you remember about him?
When my brother was a war photographer, he would come home once in a while from the battlefield and show us pictures he had taken. He wasn’t happy because his pictures showed people dying everyday. He would tell his wife, “I don’t like war. I hope that war will be over soon.”
Weren’t you afraid that the same thing was going to happen to you?
Yes, I was afraid. But I loved photo journalism. Everybody wanted that job, but not all of them could get it. But if I had not become a photographer, I would have become a Vietnamese soldier and died anyway. I had two choices.
What was your main objective when you headed to photograph the war?
I wanted pictures of the people in the war, not just local Vietnamese. Through my photos, I wanted people in the world to see how the war was going on in my country.
What was Kim Phuc’s response when she found out that her body was displayed in every newspaper in New York?
On the day the photo was taken, Kim Phuc didn’t know about it because she was suffering so hard from the burns.
When she first saw the picture, she hated it. She would say to me angrily, “Uncle Nick, why did you take pictures of me naked?”
But later, she came to understand that the picture changed her life. She calls me and says “thank you for taking the picture and save my life.”
She is now a United Nations Goodwill ambassador.
How exactly did your award-winning photo of Kim Phuc affected her life afterwards?
After losing contact with her for about 17 years after she left Vietnam, I found out that she was studying medicine in Cuba with her boyfriend, whom she married afterwards.
On their way back from a honeymoon to Moscow, the couple defected to Canada. They originally thought they would be caught at customs in Canada and sent back to Cuba, but Kim Phuc was famous because of my photo, so she and her husband were protected by the country. When I called her later, she cried and shouted that she was finally free in Canada.
Kevin Carter, a South African photographer, could not withstand the harsh criticism surrounding his Pulitzer prize-winning photo of a starving Sudanese toddler being targeted by a vulture and committed suicide. What would you have done if you were in his position?
If I hadn’t helped Kim Phuc back then, and was being criticized for not knowing if she was dead or alive, I think I would’ve killed myself, too.
I consider it very important for the photographer to take care of the subject of the photo. I was only 19. I didn’t know anything when I saw Kim Phuc’s body burn; I just wanted to help her.
People would ask me why I did that, because it was not my job, but I didn’t want her to be alone on the highway.
What do you think is the best part of photography compared to other media?
Receiving the opportunity to capture a shot of the moment is the most appealing part of photography for me. Every time I take a picture, I look at the overall scenery beforehand to best convey the moment. I don’t want any random people in the shot.
Do you think you will ever take a photo with as much impact as “Napalm Girl” in your future career as a photographer?
That is the best picture I’ve ever shot. I think I’ll never get a picture like that again.
BY JIN EUN-SOO, CONTRIBUTING WRITER