Kim Phuc, pictured above, was running from an airborne attack, horribly burned with napalm, in June of 1972, 40 years ago this month. She ran blindly, in unbelievable pain, right at the lens of Associated Press photog Nick Ut. I don’t know what his shutter speed was. 1/125th? 1/250th? The blink of an eye. The click of a shutter. And this young girl ran into the pages of history.
Nick, a good photographer, and an incredibly decent soul, made the frame, and then saved her life. He got her to an army hospital. From there she was transferred to a facility in Saigon, the only one in Vietnam equipped to handle complex and severe injuries. Many months of convalescence later, she went back to her village, still in pain, but alive.
Horst Faas, the legendary AP shooter and editor, broke the general rules about nudity on the wire service, and ran the photo. It shocked the world, galvanized the anti-war movement in America, and won Nick a Pulitzer. (Horst recently passed on. Please check out colleague David Burnett’s excellent blog about his impact on photojournalism. David was also on the road that day, with Kim, and Nick.)
One of the privileges of my career was to be assigned by LIFE magazine some years ago to find and photograph subjects of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. Generally, if you’re the principal in a Pulitzer, it’s not a fortunate, nor a planned thing. Certainly nothing was planned on that road long ago. Nick’s presence there saved Kim’s life, but the picture he made changed the course of that life. She became a propaganda tool of the North Vietnamese, and of course the picture was a rallying cry for the anti-war movement here. She was allowed, eventually, to move to Cuba, where she met a fellow Vietnamese, Bui Huy Toan, who fell in love with her and became her husband. They honeymooned in Moscow, and their plane stopped in Canada. They defected, and have lived there since 1992.
I visited her at home some years ago. Such a wonderful lady. We talked. I was direct with her, as I believe a photographer needs to be in any sensitive situation. I had to make a picture that showed her scars. She knew that already. Luckily, she had given birth to Thomas, a beautiful little dumpling of a baby, not that long prior to our meeting, and was still nursing him. Photographing this lovely new life that had sprung from her scarred body was certainly a moment I remember at the camera.
Kim has found peace, and a message she can offer, borne of her suffering. She runs The Kim Foundation International, which promotes reconciliation, and she acts as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO. She has transformed from “the girl in the picture,” or, “the napalm girl,” into a viable, visible symbol of peace and hope. Her’s is an important story of resilience, courage, and forgiveness.
For me, doing this assignment reconfirmed so many things I’ve always believed about photography. That photo made on that horrible day was made in less than a second. Yet a lifetime spun on its power. With so many photographs being taken everywhere, easily, and thoughtlessly, it’s easy to forget how powerful they can be, and occasionally are. I have always felt that for everyone, looking at a photo that means something to them induces an interior, seismic shift. It may be imperceptible, and not understood immediately, but your compass has been altered, ever so slightly, and you will never be the same again.
Kim and Nick, who she calls, Uncle Ut, I’m sure will see each other this week. I wish them well. The split second crossing of their lives, in a picture, has echoed for a lifetime, and we are all richer for their journey, from that moment, as painful as it was.
Time moves. Pictures stay still. More tk…