NICK UT, WINNER OF THE 1973 PULITZER PRIZE FOR SPOT NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY & THE 1973 WORLD PRESS PHOTO OF THE YEAR, TALKS ABOUT DIFFERENT WORLDS BETWEEN THE WAR ERA OF THE "NAPALM GIRL SHOT" & THE SOCIAL MEDIA ERA OF THE "PARIS HILTON SHOT".

THIS IS A STORY OF ONE PHOTOGRAPH, WHICH STARTED THE HEALING PROCESS OF THE VIETNAM WAR.
It is Thursday 8th June 1972, the second day of heavy fighting around Trang Bang.  As Nick Ut is driving up there, he sees thousands of refugees who fled the village coming down the road. The Viet Cong members are hiding everywhere. Americans and South Vietnamese military are leaving dead bodies by the side of the road as a warning to not join or assist the Vietcong. Some Viet Cong are very young, only 15 years old.   

When four napalm bombs are dropped Nick Ut does not think there are any civilians in the village. He is photographing destruction, but suddenly out of the smoke he sees people coming. As they get closer he switches Nikon camera with a 300mm lens to Leica 35 mm. First he sees the older woman carrying a baby who dies in front of his camera. He is terrified, but behind them out of the smoke a group of children, running towards him. First is a little boy in shorts, and behind him is a naked nine year old girl, screaming “Nong qua! Nong qua! - Too hot! Too hot!”

He thinks, “Oh my God. What happened? The girl has no clothes.” He keeps shooting photos, but then he sees, that what he assumed were strips of clothing hanging from her shoulders were actually strips of skin. He stopes taking pictures. He does not want her to die. He wants to help her. He puts his cameras down on the road and pours water over this young girl. 

The name of a nine-year-old girl is Phan Thi Kim Phuc, later she is  becoming the face of Vietman war and the photograph wins Ut a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and the World Press Photo of the Year 1973 for "The Terror of War". 
NICK, YOU HAVE FROZEN IN TIME A FRAME FILLED WITH AGONY, TERROR AND DEATH. THE NUMBER OF THAT NEGATIVE FRAME WAS 7. THERE IS A SPECIAL MEANING OF THIS NUMBER IN YOUR LIFE. ARE U SUPERSTITIOUS?

Yes, I am. It was the 7th year of the war and the "Napalm Girl” photo was numbered 7 on the film negative too. That was from my brother, who was called “Lucky 7” - I am sure.

My brother was named Huynh Thanh My. My parents had 11 children. My brother was number 7. He was very handsome Vietnamese movie star and he worked as an AP photographer in the Mekong Delta in 1965. When he was killed a funeral was held. My entire family attended, thousands of people came to our house. I cried so much on that day and held a picture of my brother in my hand. They all looked at me and said, “That young boy might be a photographer.” I wasn’t sure about becoming a photographer, but my family wished I would become one. Even my brother started to teach me photography before he died. He hated the war. He hoped one day he would have a picture that would stop the war. And that picture of Kim running did stop the war. 

But at the beginning I was not sure, if I got a good shot. Today with digital cameras you can see the image right away, but when you shoot a picture on film until it’s developed and printed you don’t see it. Only when we got all the children into the hospital, I started worrying about my pictures. When I got back to the van, I hurried to Saigon. I was nervous, so nervous. I knew I had a good picture, but I was worried about the quality. I begged my brother: “Please, brother help me to get a good picture.’ And when after I looked at the film negative the frame was number 7. In my mind I said to my brother: “Brother, I think I have the picture, which you told me, when I was 15 years old. I know, that the picture will stop the war.” 

In few days, the “Napalm Girl” photo was everywhere and after the three days the war protests had started across the world. That was from my brother, I am sure.

NUMBER HAVE SPECIAL SYMBOLICAL MEANING FOR YOU. EXACTLY 35 YEARS AFTER YOU TOOK THE PHOTO OF THE "NAPALM GIRL”, YOU HAVE CAPTURE ANOTHER ICONIC PHOTO OF PARIS HILTON CRYING IN THE CAR ON THE WAY TO JAIL. 

It was same day, same time and even the weather was similar - same light for shooting. It was like a present from the God. But in every other aspect, the pictures couldn't be more different and the tears couldn't have different meaning. 

8th of June 1972 Kim kept screaming, “I’m dying! I’m dying!” Her body was burned so badly, almost 80% of her skin. All her tears were coming out. I was sure she was going to die any minute in my car (I supposed not to use company car or help people). When we arrived in the small hospital in Cu Chi, nobody wanted to help her because there were so many wounded soldiers and civilians already there. They asked me to take her to the hospital in Saigon. I refused and I have been shouting at them, that she was going to die any minute right there. I showed them my AP media pass and said, If one of them died they  would be in trouble. Then they brought Kim inside and I went back to develop my film at the AP office in Saigon. 

And Paris... 35 years later, 8th of June 2007, I just came back from Vietnam and in the AP office I was told my next assignment was to take a picture of Paris Hilton going to jail. Only when I was there, I realised I did not charge my battery, it was pure luck I got photo. I fired off two frames in a high speed. She was sitting in the car, looking at her parents and cried. She was just sentenced to go for 45 days in jail for the probation violation.

HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THESE TWO SITUATIONS?

I stated it several times before, that it's a strange feeling to compare these two photographs because I know I will never take another photograph that's as good as Kim’s photo - not as long as I live. When I look at my photograph of Kim and my photograph of Paris Hilton, I think they are both good pictures, in their way. I suppose the big difference is that I grew to love Kim, whereas… well, frankly, I don't give a damn about Paris Hilton.

THE TEARS OF THE WOMEN CAN BE STRONG WEAPONS. THEY ARE ENCODED INTO YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS AND MAPPING DIFFERENT WORLDS BETWEEN THE WAR ERA OF THE "NAPALM GIRL SHOT" AND THE SOCIAL MEDIA ERA OF THE "PARIS HILTON SHOT". HOW DO YOU PERCEIVE THE DIFFERENCE? WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO SOCIAL MEDIA?

In the moment I fired off two frames of Paris Hilton I realized the similarities between these two shots. The hair were falling into their faces in the same way and they had been crying. Even same day CNN ran a story about the man who took a picture of the "Napalm Girl" and 35 years later took the picture of Paris Hilton going to jail.

But as I said, there is a big difference. Even in the war photography now and then - for example, if you compare only photos from Vietnam and Iraq War, it is different story. The way the issues are reported has changed. The Vietnam War was defined as the “first televised war,” but it has been the still photos, the single frames, that have carved its place in history. American soldiers wanted to be portraited, because they hopped, that relatives would see them alive in the media. But nowadays photo reporters are not allowed to publish portraits of the soldiers without the official permissions. Since Vietnam was a “raw photography” experience, the reporting on contemporary conflicts is highly censored and manipulated. Nowadays you have social media and anyone can publish whatever he wants, even the fake story with photoshopped photographs. 

In the recent past, it was the photograph of Alan Kurdi, three-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy whose image made global headlines after he drowned on 2 September 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea. When Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir took the photo, I was contacted by my agency for consultation, nobody in America wanted to use that photo, because it displays death body. 

When I look at my photograph of Kim and my photograph of Paris Hilton, I think they are both good pictures, in their way. I suppose the big difference is that I grew to love Kim, whereas… well, frankly, I don't give a damn about Paris Hilton.

THERE IS A LOT OF CONTROVERSY NOT ONLY THE WAY THE PHOTOGRAPHS ARE PUBLISHED THESE DAYS, BUT IRONICALLY, ALSO THE WAY THEY ARE CENSORED AND REMOVED FROM SOCIAL MEDIA. 

Oh, yes, in 2016 the “Naked Napalm Girl” photo was removed from Facebook after Norwegian author Tom Egeland shared the photo to Facebook. Facebook’s moderators removed the photograph along with its accompanying text and his account was suspended for 24 hours after he shared an interview with Kim criticizing Facebook’s decision to censor that image.

When Kim have heard about this accident, she immediately called me and told me: “Uncle Nick, I am so angry! I am a victim of the war, not a naked woman walking the street like that! I am so angry, that they removed my picture! But do not worry, we will win, uncle!” At that moment I felt very angry, not because of me, but because of Kim. 

DID YOU DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT? WHAT WAS THE REACTION FROM FACEBOOK? 

My agency sent the letter to Facebook and also the Norway’s largest newspaper published open letter to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. In September 2016, half of the ministers in the Norwegian government shared the photo of Kim, among them prime minister Erna Solberg. Several of the Facebook posts including the Prime Minister's post were deleted by Facebook, but later that day Facebook decided to allow the photo.

Later I got letter from Facebook with their statement. But in a way I am happy, that the photo opened the worldwide discussion about the censorship and also about the rights of the war victims.  

FACEBOOK STATEMENT

After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case. An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our Community Standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography. In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time. Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed. We will also adjust our review mechanisms to permit sharing of the image going forward. It will take some time to adjust these systems but the photo should be available for sharing in the coming days. We are always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe, and we will be engaging with publishers and other members of our global community on these important questions going forward.

BUT, IT LOOKS YOU ARE QUITE A FAN OF SOCIAL MEDIA. YOU ARE POSTING PHOTOS REGULARLY ON INSTAGRAM. 

I am retired already, but I've enjoyed photography all my life. I am still taking photos every day! I always carry my cameras with me.

THANKS TO THEM I KNEW YOU WERE IN KERALA AND IT IS NOT YOUR FIRST VISIT OF COCHIN… 

Yes! I have visited Kerala last year in November and I am already planning my next trip at the beginning of 2019. This time I come also with Kim but we have to coordinate the date with her son’s wedding…(laughing). 

KIM (THE “NAPALM GIRL”), BECAME VERY IMPORTANT PERSON IN YOUR LIFE. DURING THE OPENING OF YOUR COCHIN PHOTO EXHIBITION, I SAW THE TENDERNESS AND SOFTNESS IN YOUR EYES WHILE YOU WERE TELLING HER STORY.

I saved her life and it became my responsibility to take care about her. Since she moved with her family to Canada we have been speaking over the phone together every second week last 40 years. 

I am very positive, happy person, but even today, when I look at her photo, I have tears in my eyes, I have been crying so many times looking at this photo, I still feel Kim’s pain, she had that time. It is the most important photo of my life. 

IT WILL BE GREAT PLEASURE TO SEE YOU WITH HER IN COCHIN NEXT YEAR! 

It will be pleasure for me! It is very inspiring to feel the vibes of Cochin art space. I have not seen or experienced something like this nowhere in the world, even in Paris during the biggest photo shows. 

People, who are visiting my photo exhibition in Cochin are from different parts of the society – ordinary people from Mattancherry neighbour, government people, local celebrities - but they share the same joy, when they watch my photographs. It is magical! 

I call myself “Lucky person”. I have been wounded three times in my life, but I have survived. So many good things happened in my life. My Hollywood friends are always telling me: “Nick, you are smiling all the time, you are always in a good mood!”.

And I am! I am very “Lucky person”.

NICK UT’S PHOTO SHOW IS PART OF WATER TOWN FEST 2018 - 2019, COLLATERAL PROJECT OF KOCHI MUZIRIS BIENNALE 2018. 
MOCHA ART CAFÉ, JEW TOWN, MATTANCHERRY: 13 DECEMBER 2018 - 29 MARCH 2019

NICK UT INSTAGRAM>>

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AUTOR

ZUZANA ZWIEBEL

Founder & Director of Ayurveda Trails, healing collection of (extra)ordinary people and their stories, whose experiences are transferred into various trails shared by travelers.

PHOTOGRAPHER

BIJU IBRAHIM

He captures the essence of rustic geographies, the people who are now becoming archive of the earth, the mythic & mystery of spaces & places, alleys of now filled with the density of then or before.

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