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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”

Mark says:

on June 4, 2012 at 8:24 pm

What a great story Joe. Thank you for sharing and your photograph is excellent!

Sallie latch says:

on June 4, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Anout 9 years ago I was in Vietnam and had been reading a book about Kim. Of course having been involved in the anti war movement in the 60′s as a student
at Francisco State University, I was well aware of her and her famous photo but the book told me exactly where the photo was taken. I managed to take a tour to the area and asked the tour guide specifically to stop at that famous spot. That wasn’t what they usually did, not wanting to bring up unhappy incidents about the American War there. But, with hesitation, the guide did stop at that famous location. It was a chilling reminder of what the US had done to bring untold and unnecessary suffering to millions of innocent people who still suffer from the effects of not just napalm but deadly Agent Orange as well. The war is not over for millions still suffering from the unspeakable cruelties of that war

sid Garige says:

on June 4, 2012 at 10:39 pm

Incredible story and thought provoking image.

Janet says:

on June 4, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this story and your photography has so much meaning. This story will stick with me for a very long time. Thanks again! Janet

steve loos says:

on June 4, 2012 at 11:42 pm

Long time follower Joe and old enough to remember this photo in Time (or Life?) I recall seeing a follow up story years later. Wonderful story, thanks for taking the time to bring Kim’s story back. We should never forget.

Siddharth Jain says:

on June 4, 2012 at 11:42 pm

Beautiful words Sir and so true .. A FROZEN MOMENT can MOVE an entire life !!!! Thanks for sharing .. :-)

Janine Fugere says:

on June 4, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Seems a very inappropriate forum to be so bitter, cynical, and judgmental jamvaru. I stand by my words and trust that Joe appreciated reading them.

Mark Lane says:

on June 5, 2012 at 1:35 am

Many of the images from the Vietnam war are burned into my mind as my father was an anti-war protester in the 70′s and these images were in publications around the house. The image of Kim Phuc in particular and Malcolm Browne’s photograph of Thích Quảng Đức (the monk who set himself on fire) effect me the most. I visited Vietnam a few years ago and was very moved when looking around the still scarred country and visited the memorial of Thích Quảng Đức and saw his car still there – straight from the photo. There is now a reality to these images for me rather than being images long ago from a far away war.
Joe, your image is searing in its portrayal of the softness, beauty of new life and happiness with the stark reality of the scars from another time. Brought tears to my eyes – awesome shot.

Joe McNally says:

on June 5, 2012 at 4:52 am

many thanks for the kind words janine…when you meet an extraordinary person like Kim, your camera simply has to stand in service to them…all the best, and thanks for checking the blog now and then…joe

dhiren smiles says:

on June 5, 2012 at 5:04 am

I remember this – such a moving story, photography at it’s very very best, Joe McNally is an inspirational human being as well as a legendary phographer. Thanks Joe ; )

David Jenkins says:

on June 5, 2012 at 6:19 am

A picture indeed says a lot without the words, but your words have added a great insight into the inspiring story of Kim, and sharing it here for others to ponder, to grieve and to be joyful is most appreciated.
As always, Joe McNally, your posts take us on a journey of self-exploration and an insight into the workings of an intuitive photographer who above all shows a respect for the subject.

thanks for sharing.

Paul Beiser says:

on June 5, 2012 at 7:20 am

Very powerful and moving Joe – many thanks for sharing.

mag says:

on June 5, 2012 at 10:57 am

Recently I had my fist visit to Vietnam and I saw this photo at the museum. In fact this is the second time I saw this photo.
I felt sorry and sad but also feel proud for both Kim and nick for their
Braveness, selfishness and determination in life, which I believe this is what we need to learn from both. Very thanks for sharing.

RvF says:

on June 5, 2012 at 11:39 am

I cannot even begin to imagine how painful and horrific this experience was for the little Kim Phuc!!
It’s hard to understand the reasons we do this kind of things to each other; but it’s great to see she’s now, a proud and happy mother.
This is the typical example how the right image could make a difference in the life of many people!

John McWade says:

on June 5, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Seismic shift. Compass altered, ever so slightly. Brilliant and beautiful, thank you.

Doug says:

on June 6, 2012 at 2:00 am

Great followup story to an iconic image. Your portrait here is a thing of beauty.

Vicki says:

on June 6, 2012 at 8:18 am

Such a haunting image, story and eloquently written.
Your photo is inspiring and touched with some wonderful light – the beauty of new life sheltered within the arms of pain from the past.
Thanks for sharing.

Doug Ford says:

on June 6, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Thank you, Joe, for the reminder, and for following up in Life, and again here. Kim must be a marvelously resilient and forgiving individual.

Nate Parker says:

on June 6, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Speechless- but feeling like to give a thank you somehow for once again publishing profound content, thank you. By the way I can’t help but think as an imaginator of how amazing the patterns are of the scars themselves like a landscape of flesh somehow- wow.

Dave R. says:

on June 6, 2012 at 10:38 pm

On a side note … I visited the Newseum in Washington DC on Memorial Day, where Nick Ut’s iconic image, along with the camera he shot it with is on display. It’s part of the Pulitzer Prize exhibit that’s a must see. This post is a great follow up, as I had been fixated on Nick’s image for several minutes. Also on exhibit is the sports photography of Neil Leifer, and images taken by presidential photographers over the years. I found a lot of inspiration in all the photography I took in that day. Thanks for the post, Joe.

Thorsten Wieszniewski says:

on June 7, 2012 at 5:39 am

Thank you for sharing this story with us!

Ken says:

on June 7, 2012 at 9:17 am

Joe – as usual, your gift for writing, along with your photography, has moved me to goose bumps. I too am old enough to remember the original photo from years back. I recently read that Uncle Ut “pursuaded” the American medics to attempt to save her, as their triage effort made them feel that it was too severe of an injury to survive.

Thank you for enlightening my day and my life…..

Mark Jones says:

on June 8, 2012 at 5:57 am

Great post. Even though I have seen the original before it still brings tears to my eyes and a sickness to my stomach as to how these people were damaged. Being too young to be around when this war was on and so many years later – today – it hurts *me*.

Laura says:

on June 8, 2012 at 9:20 am

I remember this photo well from when I was a youth. It was one of many photos that were formative in my view of the world. There is nothing glorious about war and the “collateral” damage continues long after the troops go home. If only the powers that be thought through the effects their decisions have on so many would they be so quick to pull the trigger. Of course the people who make these decisions never serve much less participate in the dirty business of war.The power of the still photograph will always prevail.

Natasha McEachron says:

on June 9, 2012 at 1:59 am

Wow, seek no further if ever you need an example of the power of an image. I’d seen the photo of Kim as a child and thought that her clothing had been burnt off and she was running scared without realizing that her skin was also being burnt. I was reading the text and had gotten to a point on the page where I could see the top of Kim’s head in the photo of her as an adult. To scroll down and see the scars on her body was really shocking. Goodness, the things that we as human beings do to each other…

Felisa T.Hilbano says:

on June 9, 2012 at 11:31 am

A moving rendition of a beautiful moment captured in time and space for compassionate people to feel for the circumstances of war that cause so many innocent lives lost and ruined. The memorable moment happened for a purpose and it’s left for us to ponder the meaning of it all. We may never understand, only God knows, and we can only pray…Thank you…

Peter Jobbins says:

on June 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Her resilience and courage are incredible. Yes, Jamvaru, I too think this is beautifully written and photographed.

andy says:

on June 10, 2012 at 10:49 am

It is really hard to write about human suffering without infringing the dignity of the sufferer, but the way you did it is the best. It touched your reader’s heart. Thank you for the story.

ben wilhelmi says:

on June 10, 2012 at 11:55 am

no one mentionned Kim’s meeting with helicopter pilot? He became a priest or something and they did finally meet some years ago. She did forgive him…

Peter Hunter says:

on June 10, 2012 at 7:01 pm

This photo really shows the power of photography. I believe that with the photo by Eddie Adams (Google him) of the Viet Cong suspect being executed in a street in Saigon, they really helped to end the war in Vietnam. Both Nick Ut and Eddie Adams should go down in history as two of the worlds greatest photographers.

Nick Van Zanten says:

on June 10, 2012 at 11:05 pm

Thank you Joe,
Prof. J. Rufus Fears tells us the first lesson of history is that we never learn from history. However, without photographs we would never know our history. If we can see, let’s hope we can learn.

Rory says:

on June 11, 2012 at 5:25 am

Thank you again for an awesome piece of writing.
I first your portrait of Kim in “The moment it clicks”, and it’s been a favourite of mine ever since.
Aside from the skill you have with a camera I admire you for your emotional response to the work you do and the abiding respect you have for the people you’ve photographed.
Thanks for sharing.

Tom Darling says:

on June 13, 2012 at 12:02 am

Joe: What a great story. Thanks for sharing. Photography has always been about capturing the moment. Nick Ut did it with his image and your image is a great follow up. The new digital photographers have no idea of the challenges we faced in the film days. It is really hard to believe that it has been 40 years already. Richard Burnett’s Blog was really good also, thanks for pointing us to it. On the day of this photograph I was further up Route 1 in the city of An Loc. I was the first photographer “allowed” in An Loc during the siege.

Todd says:

on June 13, 2012 at 1:38 am

Thank you Joe for sharing this story. As a photographer you get to listen to people’s stories and thru this, share their emotions and feelings to the world.

Dani Davila says:

on June 13, 2012 at 4:38 pm

thanks Joe, not only pictures, stories, thats what you offer to us. Thanks.

amyzhou says:

on June 14, 2012 at 1:52 am

oh my god! it is touch me very much
i cant accept

Robert Watcher says:

on June 14, 2012 at 11:16 am

I was 15 years old when this picture was taken in June of 1972. I remember this photograph of the devastating effects of war – vividly. It is really neat to see your updated portrait of the young girl. Thnks for posting this


Lisa Kirton says:

on June 14, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Truly profound work Joe. “Love transcends all things” and you have captured this so eloquently.

Louis Pang says:

on June 15, 2012 at 12:28 am

SO honored I have a signed copy of this photo from you. It’s on my office wall. A constant reminder no matter how painful the past was, the future can be beautiful. Love this blog post. You can tell stories with photographs and words in a way that only you can!

Dinil Abeygunawrdane says:

on June 15, 2012 at 7:20 am

Once in a while we come across something that really makes us want to become better human beings – that to me is the ultimate inspiration!
Thank you Joe!

Nawfal Johnson Nur says:

on June 17, 2012 at 1:45 am

A beautiful story, although tragic for Kim during one part of her life, Nick’s photo shows how Photography has the power to cause reactions that can lead to a wider good – photography brings to light stories and events that would otherwise go unnoticed, and problems that would otherwise go unsolved. Thanks for sharing, Joe! And also, photography can show joyous celebrations of life, as your photo does of Kim and Thomas.

Christy Harper says:

on June 17, 2012 at 8:02 am

I love the image of the mom hugging her baby, great job :)

Michael says:

on June 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Thanks for the story, the shot of Kim and the baby is beautiful.

Marcin B says:

on June 24, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Truly moving story and cruel but true pictures.

Christopher says:

on July 6, 2012 at 7:00 pm

There are some moments that take your breath away, and Joe this was one of those moments. It really does lay bare the power that photography can have, and what a sensitive image maker can do with that power.
Thanks Joe for giving me this experience today, I love that I can carry the beauty of Kim beyond that picture of her as a young girl, to who she is now.

Szabolcs Hámor says:

on September 7, 2012 at 6:12 am

My father was a photojournalist for forty years, he is bound to the image I remembered that at that time, unfortunately, the World Press Photo exhibition in the threat of communism, he could not start. My father died last year, and now I’m trying to move on the road more or less success. Joe is often very inspiring photos through the pages.

Chris Burrows says:

on September 25, 2012 at 6:58 pm

This nearly brought me to tears and goes to reaffirm why I’m training to become a photojournalist. Thank you, Joe, for sharing this.

Sam says:

on September 26, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Oh guy, you made me cry. This picture is so lovely. It express hope and joy. I’ve just read and seen the pic and I’m in tears. Thank you.

Daniel Welch says:

on September 28, 2012 at 9:54 am

This is, and I mean this sincerely, the most moving pair of photographs I have ever seen. Like most people, I have grown up seeing Nick’s photo. With no more information, though, I always assumed that the girl was dead, maybe just a few minutes later. To find out that she not only survived but thrived, that she found peace and happiness, is truly a testament to the human spirit.

I’m just a dilettante photog myself, and in my tranquil, suburban world, in my life of incredibly good fortune, the power of these images is something I can only aspire to. Bless you, though, for setting the bar so high.

Johanna Bradley says:

on November 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm

The world is just as cruel today, but it’s wonderful to know of the survival of this youngster, and to be privileged to see her with her own child.
Many thanks for this.

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