Nick Ut’s Iconic Napalm Girl Photo

40 Years On From AP’s “Napalm Girl” Photograph From The Vietnam War

Anyone with any interest in history or photography will know the image. It’s a photograph that grabs you and never leaves you once you’ve seen it. The image taken by AP’s Nick Ut on June 8th, 1972, shows crying children running away from their village after a Napalm aerial attack by South Vietnamese Forces.

In this June 8, 1972 file photo, crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places as South Vietnamese forces from the 25th Division walk behind them. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. From left, the children 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. AP Photo/Nick Ut

It’s a disturbing image; one that shakes us to our core. The main subject in the shot is nine year old Kim Phuc; running, , wailing the words “Too hot, too hot”, crying and naked. As she was hit by the burning Napalm, it raced up her body and incinerated her clothing on contact. It burnt through the layers of her skin all over her back, leaving her heavily scarred to this day.

This moment brought together photographer and subject, not only to create the most powerful image from the Vietnam war but it also united a nine year old girl who would certainly have died, with her saviour; the young 21 year old Vietnamese photographer, Nick Ut. He drove Phuc to a small hospital, where he was told the small girl was too far gone to save. He showed them his American press badge and demanded the doctors treat the girl and left, assuring them that the girl would not be forgotten. “I cried when I saw her running,” said Ut. “If I don’t help her — if something happened and she died — I think I’d kill myself after that.”

AP staff photographer Nick Ut in Vietnam during the 1970s. AP Photo/Nick Ut

Although AP had strict rules about nudity, legendary AP photo editor Horst Faas broke the rules as soon as he saw the image, as it’s news value far outweighed any policy.

A few days later, Christopher Wain from ITN found out that the little girl had survived. He was on the scene and had given her water and doused her burning back with water from his canteen. He fought to have her transferred to a speciality unit run by the Americans. Although she had 35% of her body scorched with 3rd degree burns, she survived and 13 months later, after multiple painful skin grafts and surgeries, she was allowed to leave the Barsky facility.

Kim Phuc

Photographer Nick Ut with Phan Thi Kim Phuc; the girl in iconic Vietnam War photo “Napalm Girl”. Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. AP Photo/Nick Ut

Kim Phuc, now 49, says “I really wanted to escape from that little girl. But it seems to me the picture didn’t let me go”. After years of difficulty, feeling like a victim of war, then finding love, and finally defecting to Canada, the picture has changed it’s meaning for her. “Most of the people, they know my picture but there’s very few that know about my life,” she said. “I’m so thankful that … I can accept the picture as a powerful gift. Then it is my choice. Then I can work with it for peace.”

To help children caught up in war, she has created The Kim Foundation.

Nick Ut

AP staff photographer Nick Ut views an A-1 Skyraider attack aircraft, as used in Vietnam, fitted with Napalm. April 2010. AP Photo/Nick Ut

Over 40 years have passed since AP’s most iconic image was taken, and Nick Ut, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the image, is very much a full time AP staff photographer, now based in LA. In August this year, Nick visited the AP offices in NY to see his original negatives for the third time ever, since having processed it in the darkroom in Vietnam.

During a visit to the Associated Press headquarters photo library in New York, Aug. 10, 2012, AP staff photographer Nick Ut holds a plastic sleeve containing the original “Napalm Girl” negative, for which he won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography. (AP Photo)

To find out more about the background to this amazing image and the surrounding story, I thoroughly recommend this AP article.

Here’s a must watch interview with Nick Ut, describing the events of the day, with some stunning photography.


All images ©AP

25 responses to “Nick Ut’s Iconic Napalm Girl Photo

  1. This image is not just iconic but more importantly it triggered a resounding shot across the bow of what hineous things were happening and altered the course of the continuing banality of the Vietnam war – Photography is one of the most powerful tools that can impact social change and policy for the good. Ut’s image makes me weep with anger and smile at the outcome for all who helped her survie and re-build her shattered world.

  2. I wonder if he made this famous shot with the Leica he had on his neck?

  3. But he did make the famous shot with a Leica though?

  4. Hi Ed
    Thanks for the story update, great to see that Kim has been able to lead a positive life. The picture is still alive and still shows how horrid war really is and the pain it inflicts.

  5. Ed, thanks for the reminder on the photograph and some of it’s background.
    Seeing this photograph again, it really moves – every time more, such a powerful photograph.

    I think, this photograph should be having more regular press, to remind us about truth of war, as we are so disconnected from what it indeed going on, thinking, we know and see all with all the media coverage these days.

    Seriously though, what does it matter, which camera Nick Ut was using for the photo – truly a strange question?

  6. Thanks Ed for sharing the story behind surely one of the most iconic and important photographs of our time. The video of Nick also shows his compassion not just his talent as a photographer .

  7. Nick’s prize winning photo is nothing but, great however does one great image equate with being a great photographer? What other images has this great photographer produced? I am in no way denigrating Nick’s once in a lifetime photo opportunity.

    • Firstly, anyone who would take that one image, in my book need never have to take any other pictures. It’s a picture that rises above any other photojournalistic image in existence. It is truly iconic and with such power that it shocked and moved the world and was absolutely instrumental in bringing an end to that war. Your comment is absolutely disrespectful, ignorant and totally incorrect. I’d suggest you do some research and look at Nick’s other work too. Naturally nothing he has shot, or any other photographer has ever shot, matches the napalm girl image.

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