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On a Road, 40 Years Ago

Jun 4

In history at 5:24am

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…

117 Responses to “On a Road, 40 Years Ago”

kiki says:

on November 8, 2012 at 10:22 pm

The picture with Kim and her baby bring tears of my eyes, tears of pure joy. That first shot of her as a young child I believe has got to be the most tragic picture i’ve ever seen…to see that she overcame not only the physical but emotional pain and had a beautiful baby of her own is in itself pure. Best wishes to her and her family and may God bring her nothing but happiness and goodwill.
p.s. fantastic picture of coures.

Cris says:

on November 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm

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.

I didn’t cry or tear when I read the story or saw the photos, but this paragraph brought me down. It’s so simply stated, but means so much. The story is amazing and moving, heartfelt and real…But what you say about…never being the same…Is absolutely the most amamzing thing anyone can say about looking at a photo. Thank you for making me smile and envoking something great inside.

Peter says:

on November 28, 2012 at 2:10 am

I still look at the photo taken back then and i have always wondered what happened to that poor wee girl, naked, afraid and hurting. Every time I looked at the picture I would start to think of the pain and suffering going on in the world today and how I felt that every leader and dictator should see this photo and understand that the things they do, while in power, affects those they are ment to represent.

Thank you for your strength and bravery and for not giving up.

Kathy says:

on November 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Thank you for bringing us a happy picture to think about when we think of the little girl running scared and in pain. Bless her and you both.

Christina says:

on January 6, 2013 at 11:26 am

Beautiful, thank you for taking her amazing story.

Christina says:

on January 6, 2013 at 11:27 am

sharing, sorry

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