The shot that ended the Vietnam War
An interview with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Nick Ut who captured the horrors of the Vietnam War
I want my photos to be big pictures on the front page. I don’t want it to appear as a small one on an inside page," says Huỳnh Công (Nick) Ut, at the Leica store in Connaught Place in Delhi, with a shy laugh, bobbing his head to make his point. One of the most famous photographers in the world, the Pulitzer Prize winning Ut was in Delhi recently for a Networking India Series event at the Unesco auditorium, organised by the YES Arts and Culture Institute and Leica Cameras. The Los Angeles resident became a photographer in Saigon in 1966, and he’s best known for the 1972 image of a little girl, running away from a village that had just been bombed with napalm by the South Vietnamese army. In it, she runs, terrified and crying, along with other children, away from the fires, her clothes burned off and her body wracked with third degree burns. This photo, which Ut had titled The Terror of War, helped swing public opinion decisively against American military involvement in Vietnam. In two years, Saigon, the capital of the US-led South Vietnamese government, would fall to the Vietcong and the Vietnam War would be over.
“I always wanted to be a photographer," says Ut, who was 21 when he took the photo that would make him the youngest Pulitzer Prize winner ever (in 1973), across categories. “My elder brother (Huỳnh Thanh My) was a famous photographer in Vietnam, and I learned a lot from him." After his brother was killed on assignment in the Mekong Delta in 1965, Ut, then only 16, applied for a job at Associated Press (AP), where his brother had been a staff photographer. The Saigon bureau was, at the time, headed by the two-time Pulitzer winner Horst Faas. “He said no, we don’t want you dying like your brother. They were worried that if I go to the war I’ll die. After two weeks, I tried one more time. This time they said ok, welcome. But we will give you the darkroom job," says Ut. That was the beginning of his career at AP, which lasted 51 years, and ended when he retired from the Los Angeles bureau last year.
“There were so many amazing photographers in Vietnam when I started working at AP," he says. “I learned so much from people like my friend Eddie Adams, Henri Huet." Ut is happiest when talking about cameras and lenses, and there’s a childlike glee when he talks about the aesthetics of photography. “When my boss (Faas) arrived in Vietnam, he wanted all the photographers to have Leica only. During the war, I had two Leicas, M2 and M3. Perfect action cameras. You didn’t even really need to focus. To capture bombs, you needed long lenses, and I had two Nikons as well. I loved Nikon’s long lens."
Ut’s career has been a fascinating one. He cut his teeth as a war photographer, working in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he became a refugee, transiting via the AP office in Tokyo to finally emigrate to the US in the late 1970s. Here he became famous as an astute observer of Hollywood celebrities, especially Hollywood trials, drawing praise for his work during the O.J. Simpson trial, the legal hassles of actor Robert Downey Jr. and the child sexual abuse case that dogged Michael Jackson. His coverage of the 1992 Rodney King riots that engulfed LA, which, Ut says, triggered traumatic memories of war, was also influential. It’s his wartime photography though, shot in black and white, that keeps drawing people back.
Ut says as a photojournalist, the Vietnam War gave him and his fellow professionals opportunities to tell stories that are simply impossible today. Much of that has to do with military censorship, which, according to Ut, is a direct result of the candid images that emerged from Vietnam. “You know, during the Vietnam War we had so much freedom," he says, “I took pictures of so many dead bodies, during the action. Nobody stopped me. The American soldiers in Saigon were so lonely. They wanted me to take their pictures. They wanted their families to see their pictures in the newspapers." American military commanders would go on to blame the media’s unfettered access as a reason the US lost the war, and strict access controls soon became the norm.
“These days, you won’t see any pictures like Vietnam," he says ruefully. “When my photographer friends go to cover the war in Iraq, they say that the army doesn’t want any photos like those from Vietnam. If they see you taking a photo, they tell you to delete it. That’s why, no freedom. If you try anything like the (candid) shots of Vietnam, they would never allow it." In his years covering war, Ut was badly wounded thrice, but his memories of these are tinged with humour. He says that once he was asked if his small frame makes it difficult to get certain shots. “I tell them, that one night, during the war, I’d taken off my helmet, and a rocket whizzed past and burned my hair. I told people, if I was just a little taller, my head would be gone!"
Ut helped save the life of Kim Phuc, the girl in his famous picture, setting aside his cameras and taking her to a hospital in Saigon. “Kim and I are like family now," Ut says fondly. “She’s a Canadian citizen and now a grandma. A couple of months ago she called and said Nick, you better come quick and be here for my son’s wedding."
In the era of Donald Trump, it is interesting to find out that former US president Richard Nixon had once derided Ut’s napalm photo as a fake. When I ask Ut, he laughs and says, “Yes, he said that if it was napalm, then the girl couldn’t have survived. He thought her burns were from cooking oil." According to Ut, the American army had held a press conference after the war, insinuating similar theories. “But," says Ut, “there are images of the bombs dropping, so it really was napalm." He adds, with a gleam in his eyes, “So I’d say, sorry, but it’s too late."