A second look

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Nick Ut cannot get enough of peace.

The most normal sights in his native country couples on motorbikes, street vendors hawking their fares or just people going about their daily business are poignant scenes for him.

"I love taking pictures here. I take my camera everywhere. I take pictures everywhere," Ut said.

Ut, whose iconic photograph of the Vietnam War almost forty years ago confronted millions across the globe with the horrors being visited on innocent people, remembers the day vividly.

He was 21 years old then, and working as a photographer for the Associated Press (AP) in Saigon. He rushed to the scene on hearing the South Vietnamese Air Force was napalming a village in Tay Ninh Province, and what he saw and captured changed his life and that of many others.

A group of children were running on a street toward him, screaming in fear and pain, and one of them was a naked nineyear-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, with strips of skin hanging out from her body. He first mistook them for pieces of fabric.

After shooting the picture that is credited by many to have been instrumental in stopping the war, or at least being a defining moment in the conflict, he rushed the girl with third degree burns to the hospital, saving her life. He remains in close touch with Kim Phuc to this day.

Extraordinary stories like these cannot leave Ut alone. They seek him out at what seems like predestined moments.

Even his becoming a photographer was a matter of destiny.

"I became a photographer because my brother asked me to be a photographer."

Ut's brother Huynh Thanh My was also a famous AP photographer. He died while covering a Mekong Delta battle in 1965 and Ut joined AP just a year later when he was 16.

"Before he died, he always told me he wanted me to be a photographer. But he told me stories and he said he hated to see people die every day. He wanted the pictures to stop the war in Vietnam."

"Every day he traveled, he went to the Mekong Delta, central Vietnam, he took photos of dead bodies American soldiers [and] Vietnamese soldiers. He didn't like seeing the pictures of the war anymore. He told me he wanted to stop the Vietnam War."

It was sheer luck that Ut even survived long enough to take the photo that helped sway US sentiment against the war.

The year before he took the shot of Kim Phuc, Ut gave his seat on a helicopter going into the war zone in Laos to a friend, photographer Henri Huet, on the latter's request at the very last minute. The helicopter was shot down and everyone on it died, including famous photographers like Larry Burrows, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto.

Now, 35 years after the war ended, Ut's life is very different. He still loses friends regularly, though now to old age and diseases, not war (Nick's old friend and AP wartime colleague John Nance just died and his old AP-bureau boss Horst Faas is now in the hospital). But what's perhaps most striking is the way his profession has changed.

Exactly 35 years to the day after he took his Pulitzer winning photograph of the screaming, napalm-hit girl, the long-time AP photographer was back in the international limelight. This time he captured a woman crying because she was about to go to jail. The woman was Paris Hilton.

Ut is unfazed by the wide chasm between a war photograph that was a pivotal moment in world history and another that pandered to morbid obsession with private lives of celebrities.

"Kim Phuc cried because of the Vietnam War, Paris Hilton cried because she was a drunk driver. Very different."

"˜Government controls the media'

He was doing his job, and the photograph of Hilton has its merits, but Ut is also clear that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get the same exposure today for his Pulitzer-winning work.

"You know during the Vietnam war, after the pictures of the war like the napalm picture, the American government learned a lesson about war journalism in Vietnam. Now in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government controls the media. You can't go by yourself, you don't have freedom to go by yourself. If you want to get to the other side, the Iraq side, by yourself, [you can't]."

We asked Ut a hypothetical question. Suppose you go with the US army, and you take some well composed photographs of burned children like Kim Phuc. Can you publish them in the mainstream press?

"No, because you don't have a choice. I have so many friends that go to Iraq and Afghanistan"¦ they say: "˜Nicky, it's not like Vietnam.'

"They don't allow it. I remember when they didn't allow [my friends] to take the pictures of the American bodies"¦ very sad photos."

All this makes Ut all the more grateful and happy about the peace and prosperity he sees in Vietnam.

Returning to his native country very regularly, Ut says he is always trying to shoot the peaceful moments of the country.

"I want the world, through my pictures, to have a second look at Vietnam. I want them to see a growing, optimistic, and peaceful Vietnam."

Ut feels that his photograph of the napalmed girl was the pinnacle of his work. And not just for its craftsmanship. He said strangers still come up and hug him on the streets for telling the truth about the war.

"I meet a lot of people. They say "˜Nicky, you're famous for the napalm photo, you stopped the Vietnam War. Why don't you go to Iraq and stop that war?'

"I wish, but I'm not so young anymore. I want to stop the war... I hope the war stops."

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