Travel & Life - November 20, 2018 | 12:11 am PT

After Hell and Hollywood, Nick Ut basks in peace

‘Napalm Girl’ lensman opens up. ‘I think I might have killed myself if I’d not saved Kim Phuc that day.’ 

He’s shot celebrities galore, U.S. presidents and Hollywood stars included, but it is the "Napalm girl" that is Nick Ut’s primary legacy, his powerful contribution to ending one of the most violent, tragic conflicts this world has ever seen – the Vietnam War.

While he’s done, and is still engaged in many projects, Nick Ut knows no conversation with him can exclude or ignore his most eminent work, one that won him the Pulitzer Prize and assured him of an immortal place in history.

With characteristic good humor and patience, he answers every question about the "Napalm girl", an image that proved like no other the adage about a picture being worth a thousand words. 

The Pulitzer-winning "Napalm Girl", 1972. From left, the children are Phan Thanh Tam, who lost an eye, younger brother of Kim Phuc, Phan Thanh Phuoc, youngest brother of Kim Phuc, Kim Phuc, and Phuc’s cousins Ho Van Bon and Ho Thi Tinh. Photo courtesy of AP/ Nick Ut

When Nick Ut shot the most famous photograph of the Vietnam War and one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, he was just 21.

The image of a terrified, burnt, naked 9-year-old girl fleeing a napalm bomb attack brought home the horrors of war more vividly than anything that had been said, written or shown until then. It put the U.S. military on the defensive and added fuel to protests for peace.

But, says Nick Ut, it was almost not taken.

"I almost did not have that photo, because I was thinking of going home. In early August, 1972, there was intense fighting in Trang Bang (about 25 miles northwest of Saigon).

"Then, when I heard my friends say that the fighting had lasted for a few days, I went to Trang Bang early morning of June 8, 1972."

He saw thousands of people fleeing the town with their children and cattle.

"I followed the Republic of Vietnam soldiers into a nearby forest, then went to National Highway 1 and heard two planes coming. I saw one drop a bomb that shook the whole town, and just two minutes after another one flew over and released four napalm bombs."

Nick Ut tried to calm himself, hoping that everyone in the town had escaped, only to see a group of children dashing out of the black smoke.

In the following seconds, history was written afresh, and perhaps the picture of the century was born. It seared consciences across the world, particularly in the United States and drove home the point that it was fighting a war it had already lost.

In 1973, Nick Ut was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph, and the same year, the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam.

Should we or shouldn’t we

In the AP newsroom, there was serious consideration and discussion on whether the photo should be published because the "Napalm girl" Kim Phuc was completely naked.

"It was the AP director of photography who allowed the publication and without any alteration, like adding clothes to Kim Phuc. Without him, it would never have been published," Nick Ut told VnExpress International.

Outside the newsroom, people debated, and are still debating where the line should be drawn. Is it appropriate to capture suffering without helping the sufferer?

But Nick Ut did help, not just Kim Phuc, but all her siblings and cousins in the picture.

After quickly snapping their frantic escape from the smoke, Nick Ut placed his camera on Highway 1 and ran to Kim Phuc. He poured water on her back. Her clothes had been completely burnt by napalm.

"She kept screaming ‘too hot, too hot,’ and repeatedly moaning to her brother, ‘brother, I’m going to die.’"

Nick Ut got all the children into a car and took them to a nearby hospital.

"Kim Phuc couldn’t sit on a chair because her back was burning and hurting so she sat on the floor of the car. She kept calling out to her brother, Tam. ‘Tam, I’m going to die.’"

When they arrived at the hospital, the doctors refused to admit them, saying they were not equipped to treat the kids and the third-degree burns covering 30 percent of Kim Phuc’s body; and advised Nick Ut to take her to a bigger hospital.

"I thought to myself, if we leave, she would die. Suddenly I remembered that I had a journalist's card, so I pulled it out and said ‘I’m media...the pictures will be everywhere.’"

The doctors finally took the children in, and Ut returned to the AP office in Saigon the same day to develop his picture.

Still in touch

After the "Napalm Girl" was published, Nick Ut had to go into hiding because the Saigon regime’s soldiers were searching for him everywhere.

The naked girl in the photograph survived and lives with her family in Canada now. The napalm scars are still visible on Kim Phuc’s body.

"We meet each other almost every year at different events. Whenever she is in America, we would meet up," Nick Ut said.

 A reunion between Nick Ut (L) and Kim Phuc (R) published on Nick Ut's Facebook 

on September 1, 2018. 

In January 2019, her son is getting married in San Francisco and Nick Ut has been invited to the wedding.

Kim Phuc’s brother Pham Thanh Tam died of cancer a couple of years ago, but Nick Ut still keeps in touch with the other children in the picture whenever he can, during his annual visits to Vietnam.

How wars treat children

Nick Ut’s image of children in agony is not unique.

Nilufer Demir’s photographs of the floating body of a dead Syrian toddler whose family was fleeing a conflict triggered by some major powers, or Kevin Carter’s "The Vulture and The Little Girl" are images that haunt anyone who’s seen them.

Comparisons have been made between Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl and Kevin Carter’s The Vulture and The Little Girl.

Carter, a South African freelance photographer, shot the picture in 1992. When a United Nations food distribution plane landed, Carter shot images of young kids scrabbling in the dirt, crying, according to the National Geographic magazine.

As one little girl who had almost no flesh left on her scrawled on the ground, unaware of a vulture standing just beyond her, Carter took the shot and chased the bird away but he did not go the extra mile to save the little girl.

Nobody knows what happened to her.

‘I might have killed myself’

Like Nick Ut, Carter won a Pulitzer prize for the photograph, but four months after its publication, he killed himself, leaving behind a suicide note that mentioned how the suffering and killing of starved and wounded children and corpses haunted him.

While the picture drew worldwide attention to the Sudan famine, it also provoked afresh an everlasting debate on the ethics of a photographer’s work.

"If I had not saved Kim Phuc that day, I think I would have killed myself like Kevin Carter," Nick Ut said.

He was also personally tormented by the war. His older brother, Huynh Thanh My, was killed on assignment with the AP in the Mekong Delta.

He still carries his own personal scars. In the 10 years that he covered the Vietnam War, he was hit by bullets on his thigh, belly, and arm.

To this day, his leg hurts sometimes from the bullet wound.

But he is grateful that his height, or the lack of it, helped him escape bullets that flew over his head.

With a short laugh, he told VnExpress International: "If I were as tall as you, I would probably have been killed."

Too good to be true

Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl shook the world, but it was not immune from suspicion.

"Some people thought ‘Napalm Girl’ was manipulated or misinterpreted, including President Nixon and the American general leading the Vietnam War, who said it might just be cooking oil on her," he recalled.

"A Life magazine photographer was standing right next to me when I took the shot, and he also filmed the moment Phuc and her family members ran out of the bombed town. There were also many other people around me then. Besides, anyone could contact Kim Phuc and ask her if the event was real.

"I don’t waste my time responding to skepticism about whether my work was photoshopped or fake. But I respect everyone’s freedom of speech."

Another stunning shot that he took, Chasing the Moon, was also suspected of being photoshopped.

Chasing the moon. Photo courtesy of Nick Ut

Nick Ut dismisses the heresy with his pictures and that of many companions who together have been chasing the moon, including Paul Roa, a Los Angeles Times journalist and many of Ut’s colleagues and fellow photographers. They call themselves the "LunARTics".

"It is not easy to take a shot like that. I have to figure out and understand the timing, which direction the moon and the plane are traveling, calculate the altitude and so on. I had to run around so much to get the shot I want," Ut explained to VnExpress International with one hand emulating the plane and the other the photographer running on the ground. 

Nick Ut at an interview with VnExpress International. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen 

The Hollywood stint

After Saigon fell in 1975, Ut left Vietnam to work in AP’s Tokyo bureau. It was there that he met his wife, Hong Huynh, another member of the Vietnamese diaspora.

The two migrated to Los Angeles in 1977, where he commenced a new phase of his career documenting Hollywood and other American celebrities.

American actress and comedian Cloris Leachman surrounded by her trophies, taken in 2011. The 92-year-old talent has won eight Primetime Emmy Awards, a Daytime Emmy Award, and an Academy Award for her role in The Last Picture Show (1971). Photo by Nick Ut
Iraq war veteran J.R. Martinez talks after he was named the grand marshal for Pasadena's 123rd Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, California, taken on Nov 1, 2011. Photo by AP/Nick Ut

Nick Ut and Huynh have two children who can understand Vietnamese but cannot speak it very well.

While they find photography compelling, the children have not chosen to make a career out of it like their father. His grandchildren, though, aged 8 and 10, love taking photos.

"They are very good at shooting like their grandpa, but on their Iphones of course. Real cameras are too heavy for them," Nick Ut said, smiling.

Sharing his legacy

Last March, AP announced that Nick Ut would retire after more than 50 years of photojournalism with the bureau.

Following the announcement, in May 2017, he came to Vietnam and gifted the "Napalm Girl" picture to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi.

The same month, he shared his photojournalism experience and expertise and the stories behind his photos with students, lecturers and other photographers at the VOV College, HCMC.

In June the same year, he gave the Vietnam Press Museum in Hanoi two cameras and 52 original photographs that he took during the Vietnam War along with few others he shot in Vietnam after 1975.

Nick Ut is a big fan of Leica cameras. He used one to capture the Napalm Girl. In fact, it is almost impossible to find him on the street without one dangling around his neck.

Nick Ut’s adoration for Leica cameras was cultivated by his late brother who showed him all his Leica cameras and used it every day to cover the Vietnam War.

In June 2018, he was invited to give a talk at the Leica Boutique in Hanoi about his near-death experience as a photojournalist in the war.

Home sweet home

Nick Ut is a naturalized American citizen, but he embraces his Vietnamese roots deeply, especially family values, not to mention its cuisine.

There is plenty of Vietnamese food available in California, but Nick Ut’s craving for authentic homemade cuisine is whetted every time he comes home.

"Ca kho to (braised fish made in southern Vietnam) is my favorite. And I also love canh chua (sour soup), bun cha Hanoi (grilled pork and vermicelli), banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake)...."

While speaking with VnExpress International, he took a break and went outside to buy some banana crackers from a street vendor. He raved about how delicious it was and shared it with everyone at the table.

Nick Ut pays a street vendor for some banana crackers. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

The 67-year-old photographer is retired from AP, but not from photography. He has signed up to freelance for Getty Image. He is also working on his book, "From Hell to Hollywood," which is slated to come out this month.

It will be published in the US by AP, but he hopes a Vietnamese version of it will be produced in Vietnam as well.

He thoroughly enjoys his annual visits to his motherland, which he spends visiting family members and paying respect to the dead.

When asked about his siblings, Nick Ut quietly counted with his fingers. He had 11.

"Some have passed away. But my younger and older brothers are still in Long An Province (his hometown), and another older brother is living in Chinatown in Saigon. All of them have retired."

Some of his older siblings had passed away before he could see them.

After all the strife and struggle, Nick Ut still nurtures a vision of and a mission for Vietnam.

"When Americans think of Vietnam, they think of Vietnam War. I want to change that. I want them to see the peaceful Vietnam."

Saigon Change, November 2018. Photo by Nick Ut
Saigon Change, November 2018. Photo by Nick Ut
Saigon Change, November 2018. Photo by Nick Ut
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Nick Ut.

Today, the man who shot the Napalm Girl revels in his real reward: a country at peace. 

Story by Sen