Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Nick Ut reveals how the Vietnam War—and his iconic photograph—changed his life.
By Indrani Bose
“I don’t want to be known as a war photographer. I don’t want to go to war any more. It’s a good thing that I am married today with children,” says Vietnamese-American photographer Nick Ut, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photograph, Napalm Girl, which shows, among others, a nine-year-old girl screaming and running naked on a road after being severely burned on her back by a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.
The girl in that photo, Kim Phuc, is now 55 years old, Ut says. In an interview, in fact, Phuc was asked about the image of Syrian refugee boy Alan Kurdi, the second image after Napalm Girl, which depicts the atrocities of war on children. “I cried a lot. Why do more innocent children have to die like that? We have to help people,” she had said.
Ut was 16 years old when he took that photograph, the 67-year-old says, adding that nothing could stop him from shooting the Vietnam War—not his tender age, not his photographer brother’s death in the war, not even his own gunshot wounds.
War is not a recent event. We have been living in a world filled with conflict and hate since forever. And many war photographers have risked their lives and landed in conflict zones with their Nikons, Canons and Leicas to capture the horror and devastation that innocent people, including women and children, have to face. Ut is one such documentarian. His photo, which also won the World Press Photo of the Year award in 1973 and compelled news organisations like Associated Press (AP) and The New York Times to break their editorial rules and publish it, has not only humanised war even since, but has also become the poster picture for war’s collateral damage.
Recounting the terrors of war at the Unesco House in Delhi recently to a room jampacked with people, he recalled how he saved Phuc’s life, who is now a UN ambassador for peace and lives in Canada with her husband and two children, by convincing the hospital staff to give her due attention by using his press card.
The image, which became a narrative for war, had a profound effect on him, he admits. “I had nightmares all the time. I couldn’t see a war movie. The doctor checked if I was okay. I lived in the hills in the US and when I heard a helicopter, I used to jump out of bed,” says Ut, who presently works with AP and lives in Los Angeles, US.
Asked for his advice for aspiring photographers, Ut, who is also famous for shooting Michael Jackson and a crying Paris Hilton, says, “Don’t shoot too much or too fast. You don’t get a job if you have a bad picture. Slow down. I never shoot too much on any of my assignments.”
With media censorship coming in over war photography, there have, however, been many changes over the years, especially regarding access to conflict zones for photojournalists. Talking about it, he says, “During the Vietnam War, they allowed me everywhere.
But you don’t have any more freedom in Vietnam. That’s why I don’t go to war any more… There is so much friction… They give you one assignment and you have to do that… I don’t want to do that… I want to take my own photographs.”
As a parting note, Ut revealed that he will be coming back to India in December—this time with the Napalm girl.