_DSC9494_DSC7487_DSC6669_DSC9760_nofoot_DSC9140
responsiveslider_lol_02 The Language of Light DVD - More
MeetJoe_02 Meet Joe McNally - More
inthebag What’s in the Bag? - More

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”

Edwin says:

on June 4, 2012 at 5:29 am

What a great and compassionate shot Joe!

Darren Elias says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:15 am

Thank you for sharing this, Joe.

Rasmus Hald says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:20 am

An important story, then and now.

Kent Ervin says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:29 am

What a great capture in the photo and the life message.

Dave says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:34 am

This is a very nice photo Joe, it touches me upon seeing this.. A year ago I was teaching in Vietnam for 2 years and I can still see the effects of Vietnam War, but good to know that Vietnam now is progressing. Thanks for sharing this Joe…Regards –Dave

mark dodd says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:38 am

i have always wondered what happened to this girl, this story has answered so many of my questions! its great to see her now and i wish her good luck for the rest of her life!
thanks for the story joe! best wishes
mark

Kostadin Luchansky says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:43 am

Hi Joe,

Thank you for sharing this touching story with us! A photographer is always a story teller as well! Its good when there is a happy end, like in this one here!

Kind regards from your loyal fan,
Kostadin

Dona Hope East says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:46 am

I have never forgotten her. Never forgotten her name. Never forgotten her face. I love the happy ending. Thanks for sharing again.

Aaron Kershaw says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:48 am

In my years shooting Video and now Still photography. I have often wondered what came of… a particular Subject. For this special woman I am saddened and relieved at the same time.

Thanks for sharing.

Steve Hyde says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:50 am

Joe, as so often after reading your blog, I’m absolutely overwhelmed with your own sensitivity, compassion and genuine, honest style. There is no ‘front’ to you, no hidden agenda, not over the top, not over effusive like some of your blogging colleagues. Simply telling it as it is, in a way that gets the message across. Thank you, once again. I love reading your posts.

Shantanu Bedarkar says:

on June 4, 2012 at 6:50 am

Beautifully told. Thanks for sharing!

Rosemary Gillan says:

on June 4, 2012 at 7:14 am

Thank you for sharing this story and for your beautiful image of Kim. I always wondered what became of this little girl. Her image haunted me for years.

Rosemary Gillan says:

on June 4, 2012 at 7:17 am

Hello Joe. Thank you for sharing Kim’s story – now and then. Her image haunted me for years. She is beautiful. Your image captured her beauty and her joy.

Simon says:

on June 4, 2012 at 7:26 am

Joe, for each and every ounce of technical wisdom you pass on to me through your stories and teachings, I find myself picking up two or three more ounces of what the real ‘essence’ of photography is – the whys as opposed to the hows. And that rings true whether it be landscapes or people.

Thanks for sharing this story, and for the extra few ounces once again.

Cameron Davidson says:

on June 4, 2012 at 7:43 am

In the uncropped version of the Nick Ut image there is a photographer running alongside the road. Who is the photographer? The good doctor himself, David Burnett.

Tim says:

on June 4, 2012 at 7:50 am

Wow, have seen this picture plenty times, and like others have always wondered what happened to her, good ending of sorts to the story. And I have to admit its brought a tear and lump to my system. Nicely written

Bob says:

on June 4, 2012 at 8:21 am

Joe,

Once again…fabulous post that moved me as much as the image.

“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 am once again grateful to be altered.

Thank you,
Bob

joe reitz says:

on June 4, 2012 at 8:23 am

great post. The impact photography has had on our lives and the ability we have to reach people unconventionally everyday… Good food for thought, Joe.

Sheila says:

on June 4, 2012 at 8:51 am

Brilliant story! Thanks for sharing.

Jeanne Newman says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:04 am

Once upon a long, long time ago when I was am art student, another photojournalist hit me over the head with a strikingly haunting and beautiful image that in one moment described the effects of the mercury that poisoned the water of the Japanese fishing village of Minamata. I mention Smith’s image because there are few images that have buried themselves inside my heart since, until once upon another time ago, I saw your image of Kim. I can only say a genuinely humble thank you for giving the world a photograph as sensitive, as moving and as loving as this one of yours. It, too, is permanently etched within me. A grateful thank you, Joe.

Rebekah says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:09 am

Thank you, Kim, for sharing your life with all of us. For bringing something good from something horrible and showing the way for us to do the same.

Jeanne Newman says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:09 am

Once upon a long, long time ago when I was an art student, another photojournalist hit me over the head with a strikingly haunting and beautiful image that in one moment described the effects of the mercury that poisoned the water of the Japanese fishing village of Minamata. I mention Smith’s image because there are few images that have buried themselves inside my heart since, until once upon another time ago, I saw your image of Kim. I can only say a genuinely humble thank you for giving the world a photograph as sensitive, as moving and as loving as this one of yours. It, too, is permanently etched within me. A grateful thank you, Joe.

Dennis Oder says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:11 am

I was 11 when the top photo came out. It and similar pictures from David Hume Kennerly started me saving pennies from my paper route to buy by first SLR, a Canon AE-1.

Very nice post Mr. McNally!!

Joseph W. Nienstedt says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:15 am

Dang it Joe, why are you cutting up onions on this blog??

Fernando C. Silva says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:22 am

Joe, thanks for sharing this story. From the click to a life story.

Steve Wylie says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:25 am

Both Nick Ut and Kim Phuc shared a stage here in Orange County yesterday, with Kim speaking of her physical and spiritural healing. As an aside, I found myself being photographed among a bunch of other rail commuters in downtown LA a few years back by Nick Ut, who’s still a working AP photographer. I looked up; there he was, firing away. A journeyman’s everyday pic, probably no more memorable than yesterday’s coffee to him, but I’ve kept it.

Colleen says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:28 am

I have seen this picture many times, yet never really noticed the soldiers in the background. They seem to be walking so casually, when in the foreground you see the terror on the children’s faces.

Susan Peden says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:45 am

Tears.

Paco says:

on June 4, 2012 at 9:47 am

Thanks for sharing, very moving and motivating…

stanchung says:

on June 4, 2012 at 10:12 am

I remember seeing this picture on a cover of a magazine-LIFE?[years after the event] and also in some history books.

Alas I was too young then to understand it then.
I do now.

Thank you Joe.

Pete says:

on June 4, 2012 at 10:16 am

Thank you! Your post includes everything I love about photography: the ability to invigorate and enliven the words in the history books but also to bring what is important in the present to our consciousness that is otherwise threatened by the constant inundation of the mundane.

From war, fear pain and death to peace, hope, love and life – a wonderful post!

Meg Belanger says:

on June 4, 2012 at 10:26 am

Thank you so much for sharing this story. Both images (the original and yours) are so powerful. Your insight into the images is really moving. I have a feeling this story will sit with me today.

Mark Stothard says:

on June 4, 2012 at 10:44 am

What a powerful photograph, “On a road 40 years ago” looking at the children’s faces put life in perspective !!

Michael says:

on June 4, 2012 at 10:57 am

Sometimes you forget how important a photograph can be. Nice to be reminded.

Jeff says:

on June 4, 2012 at 11:06 am

Good story, great truths. I think this is part of the reason we become photographers–to make a story worth telling, that hopefully makes a difference. Life-altering moments, definitely …

Well done on the Followup Joe. You did everyone a huge service, photographically and story-wise.

Cheers,
Jeff

Rebecca says:

on June 4, 2012 at 11:22 am

This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing. I too have often wondered what became of this girl. My heart sings with joy that she has found happiness and has turned this horrific event into hope and forgiveness.

Ben Hollingsworth says:

on June 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Wow. Just last week, the Memorial Day post on my Praieir Rim Images blog highlighted a number of well-known war photographers. As I was writing it, Nick & Kim’s story was the one that really struck me the most, not because it was an incredible photo (though it is), but because of the effort that Ut immediately put into saving Kim’s life, and of the lifelong friendship that the two developed thereafter.

Thanks, Joe, for posting this update on Kim’s situation and your beautiful photo of her family.

FYI, my aforementioned blog post is at:
http://blog.prairierimimages.com/2012/05/remembering-war-photographers.html

Janine Fugere says:

on June 4, 2012 at 1:50 pm

What a profoundly moving post Joe. Beautifully written and insightfully wise. Janine

Judy Schilling says:

on June 4, 2012 at 1:58 pm

This incredible story made me cry. How precious is life then and now.
Thank you.

Troy says:

on June 4, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Thank you for this.

jamvaru says:

on June 4, 2012 at 2:27 pm

blah blah, ‘great shot joe’ (puke)

man, sick of backslappers

like photography is the pinnacle of existance

fodder

i’m glad she made it, though

(omg, that was so profound and moving, joe! [backslap])
(omg beautiful and insightfully wise, janine! [backslap])

Rich Owen says:

on June 4, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I was a US Navy submarine sonar technician in June 1972 and remember this photo vividly. This is a nice portrait of an extraordinary woman.

Gregory Decle says:

on June 4, 2012 at 3:04 pm

I remember this earlier shot of Kim. I am glad that she survived and have found peace, and love. Thanks Joe for the update.

Sean Kernan says:

on June 4, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Wonderful story, Joe, well told.

Pamela Viola says:

on June 4, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Joe, thank you for sharing Kim’s story in such a compassionate way.

Libby says:

on June 4, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Dang it Joe, here come the waterworks again.

Karen B says:

on June 4, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Such a meaningful post – thank you.

Don McLean says:

on June 4, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Thanks Joe, Why must we continue to make the same mistakes over and over.

Amryl says:

on June 4, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Beautiful photo and narrating!!

Justin Hoskins says:

on June 4, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Wow! This story is amazing. I just learned about this in my American History III class at the University of Cincinnati. We talked about the impacted the photo had that ultimately changed the amount of involvement in the Vietnam War. I wonder how many lives this photo saved in the end? It shows how powerful a camera can be.

Leave a Reply