Photo of the Day: Nick Ut, 1972

Today’s photo of the day is oddly timely, given I chose the photo yesterday, mostly at random. As shown in the caption below, it is a photo by photographer Nick Ut, of 9-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as “napalm girl,” as she ran, terrified and in pain, following a napalm attack by a South Vietnamese plane. Kim, who later defected to and now lives in Canada with her husband, later says that she remembers screaming “Too hot! Too hot!” in Vietnamese as she ran.

South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places, June 8, 1972. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. The terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing. The children from left to right are: Phan Thanh Tam, younger brother of Kim Phuc, who lost an eye, Phan Thanh Phouc, youngest brother of Kim Phuc, Kim Phuc, and Kim's cousins Ho Van Bon, and Ho Thi Ting. Behind them are soldiers of the Vietnam Army 25th Division. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phúc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places, June 8, 1972. A South Vietnamese plane “accidentally” dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. The terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing. The children from left to right are: Phan Thanh Tam, younger brother of Kim Phúc, who lost an eye, Phan Thanh Phouc, youngest brother of Kim Phúc, Kim Phúc, and Kim’s cousins Ho Van Bon, and Ho Thi Ting. Behind them are soldiers of the Vietnam Army 25th Division. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Kim sustained extensive and painful burns to her arm and back, for which she was undergoing treatment as late as 2015. It hasn’t prevented her from having a good life, and she continues to be an inspiration to those who oppose war and understand courage.

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Soldiers douse Kim Phúc with water after she suffered extensive burns from napalm, dropped by the South Vietnamese army. They reported the bombing as accidental, but it’s equally likely they simply didn’t care.

The photo itself won a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for then 21-year-old photographer Nick Ut (Huỳnh Công Út) who works for the AP out of Los Angeles, and has been credited with turning the tide of American sentiment permanently against the war. For the record, Nick Ut took Kim to the hospital after taking the shot and before delivering it to the AP. The photo was prominently displayed on front-pages across the world, but not without some debate within the AP regarding sending a photo of a naked girl over the news wire:

…an editor at the AP rejected the photo of Kim Phuc running down the road without clothing because it showed frontal nudity. Pictures of nudes of all ages and sexes, and especially frontal views were an absolute no-no at the Associated Press in 1972…Horst argued by telex with the New York head-office that an exception must be made, with the compromise that no close-up of the girl Kim Phuc alone would be transmitted. The New York photo editor, Hal Buell, agreed that the news value of the photograph overrode any reservations about nudity.

— Nick Ut[4]

What makes the photo timely is that purely by chance, an article appeared in the UK’s The Guardian newspaper today, regarding this same photo and almost the same debate. Norwegian writer Tom Egeland had posted an article on news photos that he felt changed the history of warfare, and included the Nick Ut photo. The article and the photo showed up on Facebook, and it was subsequently deleted, as was a post by Norway’s Prime Minister in support of Egeland’s free speech. Egeland was suspended from Facebook, and all posting the photo in support of him have been pressured by FB to remove the photo.

I’m not a party to that debate, as (1) I’m ambivalent about the issue at hand given the sexual exploitation of children in the world and the ease by which a grey line can be crossed; and (2) I find it debatable whether FB is, in fact, a social media platform. They encourage Facebook pages, but view that more as a revenue stream than any valid attempt at creating a venue for free speech. If you want to exercise your 1st Amendment rights, you’ll have to do it on a forum whose terms and conditions allow such behavior. As Ut’s quote above shows, even on those forums, there are limits and decorum, and journalists have to ask, “Is this necessary?”

In Kim Phúc’s case, it was. Without the visceral shock of a naked little girl screaming at the camera, and her brother screaming in pain by her side, Americans would not have felt the horror. Mothers needed to be able to imagine their own daughters there, and fathers needed to feel helpless, angry, and determined to stop the insanity. Sometimes, pixelation insulates the audience too much, makes it all seem too safe and too sane. Nick Ut’s courageous decision didn’t change history, but it certainly helped. It serves, still, as a reminder that wars are never won–they are only ever lost.

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