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World remembers a photo that helped alter course of war

Update: June, 07/2012 - 09:35

by Minh Thu

 

 
Day of horror: A photo shows Kim Phuc running naked toward the camera, horribly injured. The image, taken by Nick Ut, won the Pulitzer Prize and sent an unprecedented message about what war is.
 
 
HA NOI — Forty years after the haunting photo of a naked girl burned by napalm running down a road was flashed around the world on June 8, 1972, it is still the one that reminds many people of the cruel war in Viet Nam.

For war photographer Nick Ut from Associated Press (AP), it meant a Pulitzer Prize to honour his record of the shocking moment. The photo, considered one of the most powerful images of the 20th century, almost did not see light of day because of editorial hesitation at running a picture of an unclothed girl.

For Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl in the photo who now lives in Canada, that day totally changed her life.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary since the dayThe Napalm Girl photo was taken, Ut returned to Viet Nam in April with reporters from AP and ABC News to shoot a documentary about the event and the current lives of the photographer and the burned girl. It will be released worldwide this month.

Interviews with Phuc were carried out in Canada. Ut visited the bombed village to meet other survivors and to see how the other children in his photos of 40 years ago have grown up.

The documentary doesn't only recall the war, but also captures tranquil images of a modern, peaceful Viet Nam.

The documentary is expected to have wide appeal, not only to veterans and victims on both sides, but a young generation of American students who know little about events in wartime Viet Nam War.

They visited Viet Nam with Ut and together visited the former battlefields and historical museums. They also went to Phuc's village to meet survivors of the napalm combat. They cried when they heard the stories.

Ut, whose real name is Huynh Cong Ut, was born in 1951 in Viet Nam. When his brother, Huynh Thanh My, an AP war correspondent, died in the war, Ut took his place at AP at the age of 16.

Forty years later, he still remembers exactly when the shocking moment occurred - as the napalm dropped onto a village in Trang Bang District in the southern province of Tay Ninh.

He saw little Phuc running from the smoke and kept shooting pictures of her. When she passed his camera, he realised just how badly her body had been burned.

As she passed by, she shouted "too hot, too hot" and Ut didn't want to take any more photos.

Fire danced up Phuc's left arm. The threads of her cotton clothes evaporated on contact. Searing pain bit through skin and muscle. Ut poured water on Phuc and took her to a small hospital.

"She was screaming and crying. She said, ‘I'm dying, I'm dying, I'm dying' and ‘I need some water, bring water'," Ut recalled. "Right away, I ran and threw water over her body."

"I cried when I saw her running," said Ut, "If she had died, I think I would have killed myself."

Back at the office, he developed his film. When the image of the naked little girl emerged, everyone feared it would be rejected because of the news agency's strict policy against nudity.

But a photo editor Horst Faas took one look and knew it was a shot made to break the rules. He argued the photo's news value far outweighed any other concerns, and he won. The image shocked the world. Campaigns against the war reached a crescendo. Phuc was tasked to the best hospital available and attended by a team of 20 doctors.

When Phuc grew up, the photo that had given her unwanted fame brought her another opportunity to study abroad. She was asked to become a UN Goodwill Ambassador to help victims of war. She and Ut have since re-united many times to tell their story, even travelling to London to meet the Queen.

After four decades, Phuc, now a mother of two sons, lives in Canada. She established the Kim Foundation in Canada to help children suffering from the consequences of war.

Ut has spent 46 years working as a photo-journalist. He dreams of a normal life in Viet Nam when he retires.

"In my house near Los Angeles airport, I often wake up at midnight when I hear a plane taking off. It reminds me of the sound of warplanes in Viet Nam," he said.

"Now when I revisit Viet Nam, I find that Trang Bang is changed. It has many parks, banks and schools. It's the time for me to travel throughout the country to snap peaceful moments.

On the recent trip, Ut co-operated with photo-journalist Doan Cong Tinh to prepare a pictorial book titled Chien Tranh Va Hoa Binh (War and Peace).

An exhibition of photos in the book will be on display at the end of this year. — VNS

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