Can a photograph help end a war?
Pictures from Ukraine by combat photographers, including contract photographer James Nachtwey and Associated Press photojournalists Felipe Dana, Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, have brought to light the horrific consequences of Russia’s invasion and the unconscionable treatment of innocent civilians.
Fifty years ago, I was in the same position as those photographers, working for the Associated Press in Vietnam.
On June 7, 1972, I learned about fighting taking place in Trang Bang, a small village roughly 30 miles northwest of Saigon. I still have vivid memories of my drive the next morning to Trang Bang, seeing rows of bodies by the side of the road and hundreds of refugees fleeing the area. I eventually arrived at a village destroyed by days of airstrikes. The residents were so tired of the constant battles, they fled their village to seek refuge on the streets, under bridges or wherever they could find a moment of calm.
By midday, I had the photos I thought I needed. I was preparing to leave when I saw a South Vietnamese soldier drop a yellow smoke bomb, which served as a target signal, near a group of buildings. I picked up my camera, and a few seconds later captured the image of a plane dropping four napalm bombs on the village.
As we came closer, we saw people fleeing the napalm. I was horrified when I saw a woman with her left leg badly burned. I can still see so vividly the old woman carrying a baby who died in front of my camera and another woman carrying a small child with his skin coming off.
Then I heard a child screaming, “Nong qua! Nong qua!” Too hot! Too hot! I looked through my Leica viewfinder to see a young girl who had pulled off her burning clothes and was running toward me. I started taking pictures of her.
Then she yelled to her brother that she thought she was dying and wanted some water. I instantly put my cameras down so I could help her. I knew that was more important than taking more photos. I took my canteen for her to drink and poured water on her body to cool her off, but it created more pain for her. I didn’t know that when people get burned so badly, you’re not supposed to put water on them.
Still in shock, and amid the confusion of everyone screaming, I put all the kids into the AP van.
I drove them to Cu Chi hospital, since it was the closest to Trang Bang. The girl kept crying and screaming, “I’m dying! I’m dying.” I was sure she was going to die in my van.
At the hospital, I learned that her name was Phan Thi Kim Phuc. She had suffered third-degree burns on 30 percent of her body. The doctors were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of wounded soldiers and civilians already there. They initially refused to admit her and told me to bring her to the larger Saigon hospital. But I knew she would die if she did not get immediate help. I showed them my press badge and said, “If one of them dies I will make sure the whole world knows.” Then they brought Kim Phuc inside. I never regretted my decision.
I have never looked at this photo without crying. The passage of time changes nothing about it. A war crime committed by my peers, my country. That poor child.
There is much more in this article. Much more for you to consider. If you read this blog regularly you know I won’t agree with it all; but, that’s not important. This post is about Nick Ut’s photo of Kim Phuc. A minute in the middle of terrible history and shame for the nation where I was born. And a photo that turned back a terrible contemptible war.