'Napalm girl' photographer Nick Ut remembers snapshots from Vietnam

Ut, barely in his 20s when he took the picture that helped change the course of the Vietnam war, says he was content to be just a photographer - then and now.

Published: 13th September 2018 03:28 PM  |   Last Updated: 13th September 2018 03:28 PM   |  A+A-

Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong 'Nick' Ut visits Kim Phuc's house near the place where he made his famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of her as a terrified 9-year-old in Trang Bang, Vietnam. (Na Son Nguyen/Associated Press)


NEW DELHI: It has been 46 years since the picture of a distraught, nude girl running away from plumes of smoke of a napalm attack in Vietnam appeared in newspapers, searing itself into the world's collective consciousness as the embodiment of the horrors of war.

Nick Ut, the man behind the iconic 1972 photograph, was propelled into almost celebrityhood, still recognised for that one image.

But Ut, barely in his 20s when he took the picture that helped change the course of the Vietnam war, said he was content to be just a photographer -- then and now.

"I travel a lot. I'm working on my book about my life. It's coming out in October. I will never be a retired photographer," Ut, 67, told PTI during a visit to the Indian capital this week.

"I shoot almost everyday, I have been in India for a couple of days now, I have taken a lot of pictures.

I don't stay in my hotel room, I take my camera and go out to click a picture everyday," Ut said on the sidelines of an event held by Leica in association with Yes Arts and Culture at UNESCO House.

'Napalm Girl'. (Photo | Nick Ut/Associated Press)

He said then US president Richard Nixon did not believe the photograph was real when he saw it.

"The government held a media press conference and NBC news showed the picture. They saw that the picture was real and they said they were sorry it was too late. Richard Nixon had made a big mistake.

"The picture is a real photo of the Vietnam war. That picture was very important for the Vietnam war. The Americans saw the picture and knew they had lost. The picture channelled hatred towards the war," Ut said.

The girl in the photo, Kim Phuc, has been living happily with her family in Canada and calls Ut almost every week.

Recounting how he went to Vietnam when he was just a teen, Ut said he had always been passionate about photography.

After having lost his photographer brother to the war, Ut called up the Associated Press office and asked for a job but was refused at first.

He was just shy of his 16th birthday at the time.

"The first time they said 'you are too young, go home, we don't want you to die like your elder brother'. I tried again two weeks later, they said 'ok welcome to AP'. They gave me a job of working in the dark room," he recalled.

Soon, he was sent to war-front due to the lack of photographers.

And the rest, as they say, is photography history with that one image from Vietnam's Trang Bang village his calling card even after all these years.

The Pulitzer Prize winning photographer went back to Trang Bang, which has come to be known as the "napalm village" in tourist circles, several times after the war and was often surrounded by people who wanted to take pictures with him.

"There was a young girl in the photo running with Kim. Now her family has opened a restaurant, a coffee shop, they sell coconuts and everything. Tourists from Germany, Switzerland, Denmark stop by the village.

"One time they stopped and didn't believe I was there. And they said 'oh see that man took the picture' and said 'oh he is so young!' They imagined me to be a hundred- year-old man," Ut remembered with a chuckle.

There was no romanticising the war for Ut, who also covered Cambodia and Laos for years and was wounded four times before being sent to Los Angeles -- to cover Hollywood.

While the "napalm girl" is still considered one of the greatest war photographs ever taken, Ut also clicked defining moments in the lives of celebrities -- like Michael Jackson after being acquitted of child molestation charges and heiress Paris Hilton when she was sentenced for probation violation.

"I covered Hollywood and I enjoyed it so much. In Hollywood, I worked with hundreds of media people and they are all my friends, whenever they see me they go 'Nicky is here, it must be a big story'," Ut said.

He has also covered Pentagon, earthquakes, fire incidents and various sports in his illustrious career.

Photography was more of a challenge back then, he said.

Photographers have it easier now, especially with digital cameras and high speed internet.

"During the war I shot on film, I had to run back to Saigon and develop the pictures. It would take all day. Today I click a picture and in minutes everyone can see it. It is a good thing for reporting.

"I used to do a lot of overtime work, now it's not the case. Today you take a picture, you upload it and you can go home. I call it one man band in America today. Earlier there was a team of people one would carry the camera other would carry the tripod, another the microphone. Now one man is able to do it all," he said.

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