In 1972, this picture of a nine-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing her village after a napalm attack brought the Vietnam War home to many. The bombing in Trang Bang was not the deadliest in the war, and instead of directly showing the bombings, the photo captured the moment when a group of children narrowly escaped death. Horst Faas’ decision to publish the photo was controversial. Until then, there had never been images of naked children released by AP, nor by any agency. The picture was so revealing in the nature that President Nixon accused its photographer of staging the photo.
The photographer Nick Ut remembers the day:
I had four cameras: two Nikons and two Leicas, and 24-mm., 35-mm., 50-mm., 105-mm., 200-mm., and 300-mm. lenses. Forty years ago, you needed to carry around a lot of lenses. It’s not like now where we have very sharp and fast zoom lenses. I had around 50 rolls of Tri-X film and some color negative film and a couple of rolls of slide film.
When I first saw the napalm explosion, I didn’t think there were any civilians in the village. Four napalm bombs were dropped. In the previous two days, thousands of refugees had already fled the village. Then I started to see people come out of the fireball and smoke. I picked up my Nikon camera with a 300mm and started shooting. As they got closer I switched to my Leica. First there was a grandmother carrying a baby who died in front of my camera. Then I saw through the viewfinder of my Leica, the naked girl running. I thought, “Oh my God. What happened? The girl has no clothes.” I kept shooting with my Leica M2 with my 35-mm. f2 lens. That camera is now in the Newseum in Washington.
I took almost a roll of Tri-x film of her then I saw her skin coming off and I stopped taking pictures. I didn’t want her to die. I wanted to help her. I put my cameras down on the road. We poured water over this young girl. Her name was Kim Phuc. She kept yelling “nóng quá” (Too hot). We were all in shock.
Her uncle [asked if I would take all the children to the hospital]. I knew she would die soon if I didn’t help. I immediately said, “Yes.” Kim kept screaming, “I’m dying! I’m dying!” Her body was burned so badly. All her tears were coming out. I was sure she was going to die any minute in my car. When we arrived at the hospital in Cu Chi, nobody wanted to help her because there were so many wounded soldiers and civilians already there. The local hospital was too small. They asked me, “Can you take all the children to the hospital in Saigon?” I said, “No. She’s going to die any minute right here.” I showed them my AP media pass and said, “If one of them dies you’ll be in trouble.” Then they brought Kim Phuc inside first because she was so badly wounded. Then I went back to develop my film at the AP office in Saigon.
Me and the best darkroom person in Southeast Asia, Ishizaki Jackson, who was also an editor, went into the darkroom and rolled the film onto the spools. I had eight rolls of film. He asked me when I got to the office, “Nicky, what do you have?” I said, “I have very important film.” All the film was developed in about 10 minutes. Jackson looked at the pictures and asked, “Nicky, why is the girl naked?” I said because she was on fire from the napalm bombs. He heard that and clipped one negative and printed a five by seven of it. The editor on the desk at that time was Carl Robinson. “Oh no, sorry. I don’t think we can use this picture in America.”
Then Horst Faas, the AP Saigon photo editor, and Peter Arnett, the AP correspondent, came back after lunch. Horst saw my picture and asked, “Whose picture?” One of the editors said, “Nicky’s.” He asked me to tell the story. He then yelled at everyone, “Why’s the picture still here? Move the picture right away!” Then he started looking at all my film on the light table clipping the frames he wanted. The picture got out around three or four o’clock Saigon time. It went from Saigon to Tokyo then Tokyo to New York by radiophoto transmitter.
We got a call from New York saying my photo was an amazing picture and was being used around the world. The news value was so important, that in this case it was O.K. The next morning around 7:30 A.M., Horst Faas, Peter Arnett, and I went to Trang Bang village. At the time, [the South Vietnamese military] didn’t know who I was or that I took the picture of Kim Phuc. They got in a lot of trouble. The American military complained: “Why did you let photographers take that picture?”
Although they were not seen in the most famous photo, there are other photographers in the background trying to take the picture. One of them was David Burnett, who missed the famous scene because he was changing his film. ITN reporter Christopher Wain also captured the scene on video.
At least twenty-one American papers published Napalm Girl on the front page, most of them on June 9, 1972. (The photograph was transmitted in time for some U.S. evening newspapers to publish the image in editions of June 8, 1972.). Of these twenty-one newspapers, fourteen displayed the photograph at or above the front-page fold, a newspaper’s most prominent and coveted placement. At the New York Times, where the photo editors were relieved that the girl was too young to have pubic hair (that would have required a retouching), the photo on the front page but not above the fold. At the Indianapolis Star, the photo was accompanied by Christopher Wain’s first hand account. Six newspapers published the photo on inside pages.
The New York Times re-published a cropped version of photo two days later to accompany a Week in
Review essay about napalm. The Philadelphia Inquirer published the photo on two consecutive days (the front-page fold on June 9 and inside on the following day); similarly in the Atlanta Constitution which gave the photo below the fold treatment on June 9 and a cropped version the following day on its page 2). The Washington Post had it at the lower right-hand corner of its front page on June 9, 1972, next to two articles that offered upbeat assessments about war, under a jarring shared headline that read: “Vietnam: Scents of Success.”
Internationally, the Times of London featured it on Page 6.
Nick won a Pulitzer and the World Press Photo of the Year for this photo. Kim Phu herself would toured the world inciting numerous political controversies: she became the star of numerous humanitarian events and anti-war campaigns and also the hero of a bestselling book Girl in the Picture.