LIVING IN LIMBO: Photo Finish
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
Can a photo really finish a war? I asked Nick Ut that question. Ut snapped the powerful photo of the little girl running naked down a road after being burned from napalm dropped on her Vietnamese village. The photo not only earned Ut the Pulitzer Prize, but it is widely credited with helping end the Vietnam War.
At 64, Ut still works for the Associated Press, although now he covers more Hollywood than Hanoi. But he does believe his searing image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc contributed to the end of the war.
“Everyone tells me some story,” Ut, a native of Vietnam, says during a phone interview in heavily accented English. “One [American] soldier said, ‘I never go back to Vietnam because of your picture.’ Another soldier said he came home early because of my picture.”
The Vietnam War was dubbed “The Living Room War” because, for the first time in U.S. history, it brought Americans face-to-face with the horrors of war. Nightly, photos of body bags and burned villages greeted families gathered around their TV sets, fueling anti-war chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
The George W. Bush Administration learned from Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson’s public relation errors. Before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Pres. Bush declared there would be no civilian casualty count and no photographs of flag-draped coffins.
Ut describes an even chillier dictum to suppress media coverage. “Vietnam was a different war than Iraq. In Vietnam, they allowed media coverage, so you could go anywhere you wanted, both sides.”
“But today, [photographers and reporters] are controlled by a government that doesn’t allow media freedom. In Iraq, all my friends say, ‘Nicky, I don’t think we can take a picture like [you did in] Vietnam. We are not allowed the freedom to take a picture just anywhere.’”
And that censorship is not just in war zones, Ut remarks, but in Los Angeles, too, where he sometimes photographs shootings.
“If I go to back to Vietnam or China today, I have more freedom to take pictures. But here in LA, it’s difficult. Something happens, they close a whole 10 blocks. There’s no way I can get through there. There’s more control of the media.”
Even if photos can’t stop wars, they can start or maintain them. From the Facebook video of a fruit vendor in Tunisia who lit himself on fire in protest of government corruption – an act that sparked the Arab Spring protests across northern Africa and the Middle East – to the chilling YouTube videos of the Islamic State’s barbarism in Syria and Iraq, images are now more easily shot by any amateur with a smart phone. As images have morphed from news to propaganda, ethics have eroded, too.
“Today you see a big difference for journalists,” Ut laments. “There are people with iPhones and video cameras everywhere. If something happens, I have to shoot over those people, too!”
But Ut, who was wounded three times while covering the Vietnam War and whose older brother, also an AP photographer, was killed documenting the war, is more interested in talking about the healing that his famous picture has brought into his life:
“It was early morning. I looked through the black smoke and saw the children running and the one old lady carrying the little boy. I saw the girl running. I thought, ‘What happened? The girl has no clothes!’
“I saw her left arm was burned so badly and her body…I put my camera down. I had two canteens of water and put the cool water on her body. Her body was so hot from napalm. Then her aunt came running and we carried her to a car. She cried all the time. She said, ‘I think I’m dying.’ We took her to the hospital right away – 40 minutes away.
“Then I ran to AP Saigon. We developed the black and white film. My editor said, ‘Nicky, what happened to this girl with no clothes?” So I told the story of the napalm bombing her village and burning her clothes.
“[AP in] NY called me and said, ‘Nicky, your picture is on the front page of every newspaper and TV station in the world.’
“We went back to the village early the next morning. There was still smoke from napalm and the dead bodies and the Viet Cong. People crying. A woman [kept] screaming ‘where is my daughter? Where is my daughter?’ It was the mother of the girl. I said, ‘Your daughter may be dead, I don’t know.’
“We went to the hospital. I’m so lucky next day they transferred her to the main hospital in Saigon. “I see her [Kim Phuc, now a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador] often. This year, her son is getting married. I’ll fly to Toronto. They called me and said, ‘Uncle Nicky, you come…’”
(Ed. Note: Kelly Hayes-Raitt is completing a book about the Iraqis she’s met and blogs at www.LivingLargeInLimbo.com. This essay originally appeared in The Argonaut newspaper, where Hayes-Raitt has a bi-monthly column.)