Selected Essays - Legacy of a Photo
April 30, 2010
Legacy of a Photo: Kim Phuc, Vietnam Napalm Girl
Originally published in The Millions, April 30, 2010
legacy of a photo
Modern wars are remembered in images, from Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier during the Spanish Civil War to Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima during WWII, to the more recent pictures in Iraq of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, or Stephanie Sinclair’s Dead Iraqi Girl. These are images so powerful that the seer will forever remember the moment she first encountered them. They transcend being worth a thousand words; they are concrete facts of war that are impossible to ignore or dismiss. But on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the war in which images had the greatest impact on public opinion is still Vietnam.
One harrowing photograph, popularly known as Vietnam Napalm Girl, was taken by AP photographer, Nick Ut on June 8, 1972, in the small village of Trang Bang and published through the AP to newspapers worldwide. Ut’s picture shows Kim Phuc, aged nine, running down an empty road, burned by napalm, naked in a group of clothed children, helpless next to armed soldiers. But what is the legacy of that photo, or of any of the recent wartime pictures of Afghanistan or Iraq? Do they have a strong enough impact to raise a call to action? Or has society become desensitized, avoiding that which causes moral discomfort, or, more chillingly, have we become aesthetic consumers of such imagery?
Vietnam was the first livingroom war, the first war filmed in color and then in moving pictures. Yet it is still this single black-and-white photo that manages to encapsulate everything that we guessed was wrong with a war. Kim Phuc’s anguish assumes a religious gravitas. Although the anti-war movement had been gaining strength since the late 1960’s, it went from being considered anti-American and counterculture to becoming mainstream in the early seventies, due in part to the My Lai massacre in 1968, the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and the continuing barrage of pictures showing the devastation of innocent civilians caught in the war.
Kim Phuc’s picture, taken not quite three years before the fall of Saigon, was at a period when most American troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam, during the policy of Vietnamization—handing over duties to South Vietnamese counterparts—devised by President Nixon. The napalm strike the photo records was ordered and carried out by South Vietnamese military. Does the fact that the bombs were aimed at North Vietnamese military hiding in the village, that the burned civilians were an unintended consequence, change the picture’s power? Or is the horror of unintended consequences precisely the point?
The most recent pictures that brought similar public outcry were the ones of humiliation and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Politicians said it was an isolated incident, an unintended consequence of the war. Since then additional photos of abuse both in Afghanistan and Iraq have come to light. Congress voted to keep those new photos from the public, citing their indecency. Historically, governments have wanted portrayals of the war to create public support for the sacrifices of a country’s soldiers. But Vietnam reversed those expectations. Although Americans had already had a steady exposure to disturbing images of the war, from Malcolm Browne’s 1963 picture of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk, to Eddie Adam’s 1968 picture of General Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner during the Tet Offensive, Kim Phuc’s picture was disturbing in a different way: AP headquarters at first rejected the photo for the indecency of frontal nudity, rather than focusing on the bigger indecency of children being burned alive. Ut and head of the department, Horst Fass, argued that napalm had burned off her clothes and refused to crop the photo. Finally an exception was made because of the news value of the story. In audiotapes of conversations with his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, President Nixon speculated if the photo was real or if it had been fixed. Nick Ut later wrote: “The horror of the Vietnam war recorded by me did not have to be fixed.”
Catherine Leroy, an award-winning photojournalist who covered Vietnam, said in an interview with PDN: "We were not subjected to censorship. It was unprecedented, and it will never be repeated again. We have now entered 'the brave new world' where disinformation and censorship are being implemented and access reduced to photo opportunities." If you search the internet, you will find eloquent pictorial essays on the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but we are not bombarded from newspapers, magazines, and television news as during Vietnam. One has to go look for it. Admittedly, this is a thing most would prefer to look away from rather than look at, afraid of what one might find and what that might call on one to do.
Although the Chicago Tribune ran Stephanie Sinclair’s photo of the dead Iraqi girl, some worried that it was too graphic, and a compromise was reached to include a story on the legacy of cluster bombs with it. According to an interview with Sinclair on Salon.com: “I found that the Iraqi civilian story was really hard to get published in U.S. publications. And I worked for many. I don't know why. I think they're looking at their readership and they think their readers want to know about American troops, since they can relate to them more. They think that's what the audience wants."
As photographers in Vietnam went from being supporters of their country to critics of their government’s policies, they also faced their own ethical dilemmas. Was it enough to record the devastations of war without getting personally involved? Did that make one an accomplice? Or did one have the duty to prevent harm, bring aid? Here’s what one man did. He gave water to the burned girl, and then he drove her the ten miles to a hospital. The staff, seeing the extent of her burns, put her aside to treat those who had a better chance of survival. Nick Ut would not allow this. He used what he had. He said that he was a reporter, that he had taken her picture and that it would be famous around the world. They helped her right away, and she survived. Only then did Ut leave to go develop his film. The picture went on to win a Pulitzer and became one of the most famous photographs of all time. When Ut was debriefed later that day, he didn’t mention helping a girl. In London, twenty-eight years later, Kim Phuc told the Queen: “He saved my life.”
For the next three years, until the war officially ended on April 30, 1975, Nick Ut regularly visited Kim and her family. She now lives in Canada, married and with her own children. He lives in Los Angeles and is still a photographer with AP. In a recent interview with the BBC, he said she calls him Uncle Nick. They speak on the phone once a week. “We are like family now.”