The story of the photographer behind the most stunning picture of the Vietnam War
Nick Ut is best known for his image of a terrified girl, Kim Phuc, seen fleeing her village naked after she was burned in a napalm attack. That picture, taken in 1972, earned Ut a Pulitzer Prize.
The photographer was just 21 when he captured that image, but he was already an experienced combat journalist. He was following the lead of his brother, an Associated Press, or AP, photographer who was killed in 1965 in the Mekong Delta. When Ut was just 15 years old, he got a job in an AP photo darkroom, helping develop film from photographers in the field. By the time he was 16, he was venturing out with a camera.
"Every time I took a picture, the AP reporter said, 'Nicky, that's a good picture. Can we use that?' I said, 'Yeah, of course."
His pictures of life in wartime Saigon would go out on the AP wire and soon be published in newspapers. Before long, Ut was a full-fledged combat photographer, traveling throughout South Vietnam and into Cambodia and Laos.
On June 8, 1972, he made one of many trips to the village of Trang Bang, near an area infiltrated by Viet Cong guerillas. He photographed a South Vietnamese aircraft dropping napalm bombs. Photographers thought the village was empty as they saw the flames erupt, but soon saw the remaining villagers fleeing in terror. One woman held a dead child. And nine-year-old Kim Phuc, who had ripped her burning clothes from her body, ran along the highway with her brother, screaming. Ut took his pictures and then put down his camera to help the girl, giving her some water.
"I take her to hospital. I saved her life," he said.
The picture would become an iconic image of the Vietnam War and a graphic reminder of the painful impact of war on civilians.
The young girl grew up and studied in Cuba, where she met and married a Vietnamese man. In 1992, the couple defected to Canada. Phuc now lives in Toronto with her husband and two children. She calls Ut "Uncle Nick," and the two stay in close touch.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Nick Ut worked for the Associated Press in Tokyo. And then in 1977, he came to work for the news service in Los Angeles. During the past three decades, he has photographed fires and earthquakes, entertainment and sports figures, and Hollywood celebrities. He says each day is different, and he loves the variety.
"My job, the company tells you what to do. You cannot say, 'No.' Like soldiers, they just send you somewhere, right?"
Another of Nick Ut's photographs appeared around the world last year. It shows celebrity-socialite Paris Hilton being driven to jail in handcuffs after violating probation in a drunk driving case. Ut snapped that photo on June 8, the same day he took his most famous Vietnam War photograph.
"Same day, 35 years later, anniversary, same day," he said.
Now 57 years old, Ut can be seen at news events around Los Angeles, shooting pictures of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger one day and animals at the Los Angeles zoo the next. He says he loves his work, but misses war reporting, and hopes to it again someday.
"Might be something happens. You never know, I might go to another war. I'd love to," he said.
Nick Ut takes more than 100 pictures a day, and many appear just minutes later on the Internet. Within hours, they are seen in newspapers worldwide.
He says the secret to getting good pictures is being selective. He learned that lesson from another famous photographer during the Vietnam War, his close friend Eddie Adams. Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1968 photo of a police official executing a suspected Viet Cong guerilla. Ut says he would shoot one roll of film while other photographers shot dozens.
Ut recalls there were many photographers on the highway near Trang Bang when the village was bombed in 1972, but he says most had used up all their film and so they missed the best pictures. That left Nick Ut to record the gripping images for posterity.
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