In Conversation With Nick Ut, Whose 'Napalm Girl' Photograph Changed the Course of Vietnam War

The iconic photograph fetched Ut the Pulitzer Prize and the World Press Photo Award, and is a tribute to his brother who died at a young age while covering the Vietnam War.

Photographers cover conflict mainly to document war, not to bring about change. A war, however, is about people’s suffering, and the evocative images taken often result in change. One such historic image is of the ‘Napalm Girl’, a nine-year-old girl running naked, along with other children, on a road after being severely burnt on her back by a South Vietnamese napalm attack.

Nick Ut, an Associated Press photographer, was able to capture a chilling image which symbolised the horrors of the Vietnam War, resulting in a barrage of protests. While on a regular assignment to cover the war in the suburbs of Saigon, Ut froze in time a frame filled with agony, terror and death.

Ut was 16 when his brother, Huỳnh Thanh Mỹ, a photographer, died after Viet Cong guerrillas ran over an American convoy in which Thanh Mỹ was embedded. After his brother’s death, Ut approached the late Horst Faas, photo editor for AP’s Saigon bureau, to ask for work. Faas, however, turned him down, saying that the family had already lost one son and he didn’t want them losing another. Ut was insistent on joining AP and was finally given the job of a darkroom assistant.

After nearly four years of doing that job, Ut picked up a camera. “There were plenty of cameras of different brands at the AP office in Saigon, one could pick up any and jump to work,” Ut told The Wire. “Initially, I was not allowed to go to the conflict zones and concentrated on city life. Daily life images interested Western readers and my job was to roam around the city on my motorcycle and take pictures of markets and people.”

Eventually, Faas – who was taking care of the coverage of the Vietnam War in Saigon – allowed Ut to go beyond cities and shoot daily life in villages near Saigon. “With my van and three cameras and a lot of film, I ventured into the den of conflict where the stories were happening,” Ut said. It was just 25 miles outside the Saigon City in the village of Trang Bang that Ut witnessed a terrified group of men, women and children running away from a pagoda. The moment he aimed his camera at them, there was a trembling noise and black smoke filled the air, as a result of four bombs being dropped, and within minutes, a low-flying A-1 Skyraider charged napalm at the crowd.

Photographer Nick Ut in New Delhi. Credit: Shome Basu

Suddenly, all hell broke lose after a woman emerged from the smoke carrying a dead child in her arms. Soon after, a few children who had been burnt by the attack came running. “I took out my Leica M2 and without any hesitation shot the image of some wailing children, among them a girl whose skin was nearly burnt by the napalm etches,” Ut told The Wire.

“After taking a few images, my humanity said that I should take care of these children, especially the girl. I hurriedly put them in a van and drove to the nearest hospital, which was 40 minutes away. I knew the girl would die, her body was badly burnt…but she survived and I had my picture.”

“Although I had few more close ups, AP ended up using this one. Horst Faas didn’t want to focus too much on her face, which was her identity, so he argued and settled on the frame where she along with other children were crying with pain and running towards us,” Ut explained.

The picture of the ‘Napalm Girl’ – which fetched Ut the Pulitzer Prize and the World Press Photo Award – is a tribute to his brother who died at a young age while covering the Vietnam War. Later, the girl was identified as Kim Phuc, who now lives in Canada.

Back in the US, President Richard Nixon argued that the AP image was “fake” till NBC, which had complete footage of the event, established it to be real. Defence secretary Robert McNamara’s lies and Nixon’s stubbornness was now to face the wrath of Americans who took to the streets to protest the catastrophe in Vietnam. Finally, due to the leak of Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal, the Nixon regime was ousted and McNamara was exposed. Slowly, the troops withdrew and Ut’s photo became a symbol of peace.

Ut retired from AP last year and currently lives in Los Angles. In 2007, Ut’s photograph of Paris Hilton sobbing after being arrested made it to the front of several newspapers. According to Ut, a photographer must go on working, documenting the world and report on issues no matter what they may be.

Currently he travels the globe tutoring young photo enthusiasts. Being an ambassador for Leica, he considers himself privileged and always smiles with humility whenever someone says that his image of the ‘Napalm Girl’ changed the course of Vietnam War.