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.
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.”
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, 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.
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.
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.