I kept thinking that I had a bad picture. I kept thinking if it was any good at all,” says Nick Ut, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, whose iconic photograph — The Terror Of War or Napalm Girl — taken in 1972 is one of the most hard-hitting images of the Vietnam War. “We — there were other media personnel as well — used to travel with the soldiers, in the helicopters, everywhere. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese (Army) troops were at a stand-off and the highway was shut. We were walking just outside a village in Trang Bang, it was early in the morning, there was random bombing happening, and we were taking pictures. And then we saw this huge airplane fly low, then came a second one that dropped the napalm, and everyone screamed and started running,” says Nick Ut at a Networking India Series event in Delhi’s Unesco auditorium, organised by Yes Arts and Culture Institute and Leica.
It’s a tale that he has recounted innumerable times, to the likes of actors Warren Beatty and Joan Collins. Even the reclusive actor Marlon Brando, who did not like to be photographed, gave Ut an audience because of the defining photograph. “I think seconds later, after the bomb dropped, I saw this deluge of children and women running on the road towards us. I started shooting. First, I saw a woman, she had a baby in her arms. Then on the periphery of my lens I saw this small girl, she was naked. She was crying. I started running towards her, but I kept shooting,” says Ut, who was born Huynh Công Út, in a village just outside of Saigon, Vietnam. After having shot eight rolls of film, Ut piled on as many children and women as possible in a van, including the nine-year-old napalm girl — he first wrapped her up in a raincoat — and drove them to a hospital, after having used his media card at check points to drive unhindered all the way to Saigon. “I kept thinking she would die. She had torn off her clothes because she was burning,” says Ut in heavily-accented English.
Clicked on June 8, 1972, The Napalm Girl — which the 21-year-old thought was a bad picture — and other pictures were sent to the Associated Press in the US, after being routed through Tokyo. “The photo was a subject of debate. Associated Press (AP) had a strict policy on nudity. Horst Faas, the editor and senior journalist, argued that the photo rose above the clauses of nudity. It got published on June 12, 1972, in The New York Times and then everything changed for me,” says Ut, 67. The photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and was also the World Press Photo of the year. The napalm girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, survived severe third-degree burns that affected her deeper tissues. Fourteen months after multiple surgeries, she returned home. Kim, now 55, lives in Canada and is a grandmother. She speaks to Ut every week till date. He even attended her son’s wedding.
“Nicky”, as Ut is often addressed, was the 11th of 12 children, and entered photography by chance, following in the footsteps of his elder brother, Huynh Thanh My, whom he hero-worshipped. He was also an AP photographer till he died in 1966 on an assignment. Ut remains a self-taught photojournalist, learning on the job. “My brother’s funeral had been attended by all the international media that was stationed in Vietnam. A few days later, I went up to the AP office and asked for a job, they said no, as I was only 15, and they claimed that I had a baby face,” chuckles Ut, as he fondly remembers the day. “A few months later I went again as I had turned 16. I got the job,” says Ut, with a twinkle in his eye, “But I was told to stick to non-war areas. I spent a lot of time in the dark room.” For someone who loved developing his own photos and had absolute mastery over film/analogue cameras (he had two Leicas and two Canons in those days, he still carries a Leica), Ut has adapted to the digital avatar of the technology quite easily. He has an iPhone, and an Instagram account showcasing his recent clicks. “While shooting on film, one had to be conscious of everything. But today’s digital cameras are so good, they are as good as film cameras. But yes, I think, with the ease of photography and the ability to immediately see your work on screen, has made the young photographers very trigger-happy. We need to be patient, and the right picture will happen. Wait for the right moment,” he says.
As an AP photographer, Ut moved from Tokyo to Hanoi, and, finally, to Los Angeles in 1977. Over the years, he has photographed celebrities — late musician Michael Jackson, former US president Barack Obama, actors Jennifer Aniston, Robert Downey Jr and OJ Simpson, among others. He also captured television personality Paris Hilton breaking down in her car after receiving a jail sentence in 2007. “I just take pictures, I am a photographer, not just a war photographer,” he says. He misses the freedom that the media used to enjoy back in the day. “The media card was very powerful back then. We could go anywhere, we were literally in the trenches with the troops. People would also be welcoming us — offering us beer and cigarettes — very willing to be photographed. Not like today, where war reporting is so controlled, and only embedded journalists are the norm. Censorship is everywhere, that worries me,” says Ut. “But yes, it’s a dangerous profession. I remember, while covering the war, bullets riddled the air and I jumped into the Mekong river. I had two cameras on me,” he says.
Currently on his second visit to India, this year — the first was to Kerala — Ut is all geared up for a third one, with the napalm girl, Kim, in tow. “In India, we talk so much. No time to shoot. Hopefully I shall change that over my next visit,” he says.