It is hard to say that one of photojournalism’s proudest moments shows the suffering of a child. Yet, we remember “Napalm Girl” as one of the defining photographs of that era, and Nick Ut as a teacher for generations of photojournalists to come.
Back in 1972, The New York Times struggled with the decision to put a naked, crying girl whose skin was burning from a Napalm bomb on the front page of their newspaper. The girl came running on a dirt road straight towards Ut, her arms open while wailing shrill hysterics. Ut, in the fashion of a combat photographer for The Associated Press, hurried to capture the moment on his camera; but atypical of any old journalistic tradition that demanded a stoic front, he picked the child up in his arms, carried her into his AP-commissioned van, and raced to the nearest hospital for her care.
Photos of the Vietnam War shook America to its core. They elicited a public outrage so hot, a new face of politics emerged. Anti-war candidates like Robert F. Kennedy gained traction against the two-party establishment as impassioned protests took precedence on the news. Press coverage of Vietnam was one of the events that led to the cumulative birth of the liberal movement, following political involvement of black voters in the south.
Amid its implications for American politics, photojournalists found their struggle realized through Ut: the struggle of being a good photographer, versus the struggle of being a good person. Larry Burrows, another photographer of the Vietnam War, attested in a 1968 interview that he had no right to continue working in front of a dying soldier. Photojournalists almost 40 years later possess the old school belief that interference equals contamination. So what is it exactly that Nick Ut taught us?
Ut raced into the emergency room that day, demanding treatment for the suffering Napalm victim. Doctors resisted treatment, saying her burns were too severe for her to survive. Ut angrily flashed his press pass saying that her picture would be all over international news tomorrow—and the world would know of the hospital that let her die.
“I cried when I saw her running,” said Ut to AP. “If I don’t help her—if something happened and she died—I think I’d kill myself after that.”
Ut was awarded a Pulitzer for “Napalm Girl.” He is retiring this month after 35 years with The Associated Press. And if his work has taught us anything, it’s that photojournalists are people too.
[Featured image via Wikimedia Commons]