It has been named the never rest photography for his power to stand as a symbol imperishable of the horrors of war. was taken in Vietnam, but it could have come out of any of the conflicts that routinely bleed the world dry. Five children run terrified down a road in front of a black cloud that drags the embers of a napalm rain that sticks to the body until it burns its victims like weeds. Behind them walk several soldiers and war photographers, apparently unconcerned and deaf to the children’s agony. A 20 year old vietnamese photographer He hears the screams of the kids and sees the terror etched on their faces. “Nong qua! Nong qua!” (too hot, too hot), screams the naked girl in the photo an instant before the photographer shoots.
It is questionable whether that iconic image, taken on June 8, 1972 by Nick Uta 20-year-old Vietnamese photographer who was then working for the American agency Associated Press (AP), was published today as it was then. Editorial criteria have changed and today there are many media outlets that are reluctant to publish overly explicit images of the ravages of war, their dead and their torments, a criterion often justified by the desire to soften the emotional impact of these images on the readers, but also on the survivors and relatives of the victims. Although it is not a closed debate, the dilemma about her publication would be accentuated these days by the girl’s nudity and her minority. In 2016, Facebook even removed the photograph of Nick Ut posted in a chain of comments, a decision that ended up being retracted due to the criticism received.
At that time there was also no unanimous opinion. ‘The New York Times’ and other major newspapers published the image on their front pages the following day, with which Ut ended up winning the Pulitzer Prizebut many others ignored her by invoking the nudity of Phan Thi Kim Phucthe 9-year-old girl running with her arms outstretched after ripping off her burning napalm clothes while fleeing from trang bang, the village attacked that fateful noon. “I only have flashes of memory of that horrible day,” Kim Phuc said this week in a gallery in the New York newspaper. “I was playing with my cousins in the courtyard of the temple. A moment later, there was a plane overhead and a deafening noise. Later explosions and smoke and excruciating pain. She was nine years old.”
Published by half of the major media
According to a study by the American University, only 21 of the 40 largest American newspapers of the time -all of them subscribed to AP- published the image of “the napalm girl”, formally baptized as “the terror of war”. In the collective subconscious it has come to symbolize the excesses of the American intervention in Vietnamwhere his troops remained for a decade until 1975. But it was not his fighters that dropped those napalm bombs, but the planes of his South Vietnamese allies.
The official version of all this maintains that the North American commanders received reports attesting that the village of Trang Bang had emptying of civilians after several weeks of fighting between North and South Vietnamese militaries in the area. But thinking that some North Vietnamese units might have hidden in the village, they ordered their bombardment. A group of civilians, including Kim Phuc’s family, were hiding in the Trang Bang temple when the bombs began to fall and, seeing them flee, one of the South Vietnamese pilots mistook them for enemy fighters and hit them with napalm.
Photography helped reinforce the growing opposition to the war between American society, although it is possibly exaggerated to think that the image changed the course of the contest. At the time of its publication, the bulk of US troops had already left Vietnam and public opinion was largely against the war. More than 60% of Americans believed that intervening in Southeast Asia had been a mistake, according to a Gallup poll conducted a few months earlier. And the war would not end until 1975, when communist forces from the North took over control of Saigon.
That moment immortalized in Trang Bang became, in any case, an eternal plea against war, inseparable from its protagonists ever since. Before emigrating to Los Angeles to make a living doing celebrity portraits, Ut had earned redemption by helping the girl in the photograph. As soon as he took the image of her, he wrapped her in a blanket and took her to a nearby medical center to save her life.
For kim phuc everything was much more difficult. Marked by trauma and napalm burns forever, she grew up hating that photograph. “I felt ugly and ashamed,” she recounted this week. But over time she too managed to make amends. She emigrated to Canada and opened a foundation dedicated to helping child victims of war conflicts. “Now I feel grateful for the power of that photograph of me when I was nine years old and for the journey I took as a person. My horror, which I barely remember, has become universal. And I am proud that, over time, it has become a peace symbol”.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.