Reviews | Nick Ut: I took the photo of Kim Phuc who helped end the Vietnam War. Photojournalism still matters today.

South Vietnamese forces track children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, after a napalm airstrike on suspected Viet Cong hideouts, June 8, 1972. (Nick Ut/AP)
South Vietnamese forces track children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, after a napalm airstrike on suspected Viet Cong hideouts, June 8, 1972. (Nick Ut/AP)

Nick Ut is a retired photographer.

Can a photograph help end a war?

Photos from Ukraine taken by combat photographers, including contract photographer James Nachtwey and Associated Press photojournalists Felipe Dana, Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, have shed light on the horrific consequences of the Russian invasion and the treatment inadmissible innocent civilians.

Fifty years ago, I was in the same position as these photographers, working for the Associated Press in Vietnam.

I was inspired to become a photojournalist by my brother, who worked at the AP before me, and whose mentor was the great Horst Faas. My brother taught me how to use cameras. Before he died covering a battle, he said to me: “I hope one day you will have a photo that will stop the war.

Horst strongly objected when I decided to follow in my brother’s footsteps. He said he didn’t want to have to call my mom to tell her a second son had died. I told him that I understood the risk and that it was my choice.

I was inspired by my brother’s belief that photography can serve the cause of social justice, but I didn’t know if a photo could have the power he suggested. Today many credit my “Napalm Girl” photo with hastening the end of the Vietnam War. What I know for sure is that it depicts the absolute horrors of war – defined by a young girl running naked through the midst of destruction and death.

On June 7, 1972, I learned that fighting was taking place in Trang Bang, a small village about 30 miles northwest of Saigon. I still have vivid memories of my drive the next morning to Trang Bang, seeing rows of bodies by the side of the road and hundreds of refugees fleeing the area. I finally arrived in a village destroyed by days of airstrikes. The inhabitants were so tired of the constant battles that they fled their village to take refuge in the streets, under the bridges or wherever they could find a moment of calm.

By noon, I had the photos I thought I needed. I was about to leave when I saw a South Vietnamese soldier dropping a yellow smoke bomb, which served as a target signal, near a group of buildings. I took my camera out and seconds later captured the image of a plane dropping four napalm bombs on the village.

When the bombs went off, we didn’t know if anyone had been hurt. All morning the village had seemed empty. But many people were hiding inside the village temple.

As we got closer, we saw people running from napalm. I was horrified when I saw a woman with severe burns on her left leg. I can still see very clearly the old woman carrying a baby who died in front of my camera and another woman carrying a small child whose skin is peeling off.

Then I heard a child shout: “Non qua! Non qua!” Too hot! Too hot! I looked through my Leica viewfinder to see a young girl who had taken off her hot clothes and was running towards me. I started photographing her.

Then she shouted to her brother that she thought she was going to die and that she wanted water. I immediately put down my cameras so I could help him. I knew that was more important than taking more pictures. I took my water bottle for her to drink and poured water over her body to cool her down, but it caused her more pain. I didn’t know that when people got burned so badly, you shouldn’t put water on them.

Still in shock, and amid the confusion of everyone screaming, I put all the kids in the AP van.

I took them to Cu Chi Hospital, as it was the closest to Trang Bang. The girl kept crying and screaming, “I’m dying!” I’m dying.” I was sure she was going to die in my van.

At the hospital, I learned that her name was Phan Thi Kim Phuc. She had suffered third-degree burns to 30% of her body. Medics were overwhelmed by the sheer number of wounded soldiers and civilians already there. They initially refused to admit her and told me to take her to the biggest hospital in Saigon. But I knew she would die if she didn’t get immediate help. I showed them my press badge and said, “If one of them dies, I’ll make sure the whole world knows about it.” Then they brought Kim Phuc inside. I have never regretted my decision.

Once stabilized, she was transferred from Cu Chi to Saigon Children’s Hospital and eventually to a burn unit. But his injuries weren’t the only ones Kim suffered in the attack. She lost two nephews and one of her brothers was also seriously injured.

Kim Phuc was allowed to return home for only a day after a year in the burns unit. I went to visit him that day, bringing toys and books from the Red Cross and fruit and cakes from the PA office. Her family home was destroyed, but Kim Phuc was smiling. It was nice to see her with all her family and to play with the village children again.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, I did not see Kim Phuc again until I met her again in Cuba in 1989. I was on a mission and she was a visiting student studying Spanish and pharmacology . She introduced me to her fiancé, named Toan. Before meeting him, because of her burns, she thought she could never be loved and that no one would want to marry her.

They both wanted to defect. After their wedding, a friend gave the couple money for a honeymoon in Moscow, and they found their opportunity. When the plane stopped to refuel on the way back to Cuba in Gander, Newfoundland, Kim Phuc and Toan left their belongings behind and went through customs saying, “We’re defecting . The Canadians initially refused to accept it. But after learning she was the girl in the famous photo, she and Toan were granted amnesty.

Today they live in Toronto with their two children. Kim Phuc is a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO. She has war books all over her house but doesn’t want to see any war photos, nothing that reminds her of the nightmare there. She became a Christian and goes to church every week. Although she is still smiling, I see her pain and what we saw and endured 50 years ago.

Although Kim Phuc hated the photo at first, she now thinks it gave her purpose. She uses her voice to work for peace and help others suffering a similar fate in war-torn countries.

Kim Phuc and I are two people intertwined in the story. To this day, I consider it like family. She calls me “uncle” and I talk to her often. But I will always hate the circumstances in which we met.

Seeing the horrors of war in person offers a perspective that few can experience. At the same time, amid the death and destruction of war, the resilience of humanity shines through – and I am reminded of this every time I see a photo of Ukrainians supporting their fellow citizens during this difficult time.

It is with this optimism in my heart that I hope that when Russian soldiers come across an innocent Ukrainian girl in need of help, they will feel the same impulse as me, put their weapons away and take care of another human .

I am proud of my photo and the emotions and conversations it has created around the world. Truth continues to be needed. If a single photo can make a difference, maybe even help end a war, then the work we do is as vital today as it has ever been.

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