Nick Ut holding his classic Vietnam photograph, "Napalm Girl." All photos courtesy of Nick Ut
I was already on my third glass of whiskey when I realized the guy I'd been talking to all night was Nick Ut. He was too humble to mention that “Napalm Girl,” the definitive photo of the Vietnam War, was his, and I eventually figured it out when a line formed around us of people hoping to shake his hand. While I drunkenly shared with him my insight on Instagram filters, I was frequently interrupted by teary-eyed fans telling him “your photo changed my generation.” Whatever. My Instagram game is legit.
But Ut’s “Napalm Girl” could easily be described as the first image to go viral. It made the front page of nearly every newspaper across the globe in 1972 and haunted an entire generation. The image confirmed the narrative described by the war’s opponents and vindicated the anti-war effort in the United States, so much so that Nixon reportedly accused the photo of being fake. Ut won the Pulitzer, as well as the World Press Photo of 1972.
I met Ut at Leica’s 100th anniversary party in Wetzlar, Germany. We immediately bonded over our love of cameras and open bars, both of which Leica should be commended for providing. It wasn’t long into our conversation that I mustered the courage to ask for a Q&A, which took place the following day over coffee and aspirin.
June 8 is an important day for Ut. Not only is it the 42nd anniversary of “Napalm Girl,” it’s also the seventh anniversary of “Paris Hilton Getting Arrested,” the other famous photograph in his portfolio. In 35 years, Ut went from Pulitzer-winning photojournalist for AP Saigon to Los Angeles-based celebrity photographer, and he doesn’t regret a thing.
VICE: On June 8, which do you celebrate more—your photo of “Napalm Girl” or Paris Hilton?
Nick Ut: Ha! Well, “Napalm Girl” didn’t get released until days later, so I guess I could celebrate both separately. The press almost didn’t use the photo because its subject, Kim Phuc, is completely naked. I was certain I was going to lose my job for a picture that wouldn’t even make it to print. But the real achievement in my career is that Kim survived.
Did you have a hand in saving her?
Yes, but I wasn’t supposed to. I didn’t tell anyone at first because you’re really not supposed to get involved with your subjects when you’re reporting a war. I was shot at all the time, because I mostly traveled with soldiers. I never interfered or got involved with what the soldiers were doing, but that doesn’t stop anyone from shooting at you.
But when I saw what happened to the children, things changed for me. I had been focusing my camera on the South Vietnamese airplane when it dropped four bombs of napalm. I saw a young boy, about a year old, lose his leg and die right in front of me. I kept telling myself that all I was allowed to do was take pictures and that’s it.
Then a girl runs past me, naked and crying. She was covered in napalm; I could see it on her left arm as she passed. I heard her screaming, “It’s too hot, I think I’m dying.”
I gave her my water. I watched her for about an hour, consoling her, telling her that we’d be out soon. But I was just trying to calm her. There wasn’t help to be seen anywhere. I took her to the hospital. It was full, until I showed them my press pass, which got her inside.
Did it cost you your job?
I was reprimanded, sure. “Nicky, you’re not supposed to help people!” but I can’t watch her die. I was 19, and for a brief moment, I sat there, watching her die, unable to do anything because I’m press. I cried. I thought I’d lose my job if I helped her, but after hearing her tell her brother she knew she was dying, I didn’t care. If I had been awarded for the photos, but not have done anything to help her, I would have killed myself.
What eventually compelled the press to publish the photo?
It was illegal to publish full frontal female nudity in a morning newspaper, but editors decided the gravitas of the photo overruled that. We had so much more press freedom during that war. You don’t have press freedom today. The important pictures in Iraq won’t get used in a story. AP used photos of Iraq the government didn’t want passed around, but even if the photo made the press, no one wants to see a sad picture, so no one would click on it.
The news is at the mercy of public interest. Is that why you take photos of celebrities now?
Traveling as a photojournalist in Iraq offers no protection and seldom a reward. People wanted to know what was going on in the Vietnam War. All eyes were on what was happening. But not these wars.
I remember when Michael Jackson died the same time a soldier was killed in Afghanistan. Michael Jackson made the front page, but I don’t believe the victims of war made any page that day. And this isn’t a tabloid, this is the news. These photographers are going into war zones to take pictures of what no one wants to see, and probably won’t see.
"Paris Hilton Getting Arrested"
So you prefer taking pictures of Paris Hilton?
Oh, I’ve taken photos of better celebrities. John Wayne, Lucille Ball, Liz Taylor.
I am a photographer, but I didn’t want to be a war photographer. I was in Vietnam in 1972, so I didn’t have a choice. My brother was the journalist, and he was killed in 1965. When he died, I took his place. Associated Press Saigon gave me my first job.
When I came to the United States, I covered the social war. I followed the National Guard for some time, but even that gave me nightmares of Vietnam. I prefer what I do in Los Angeles now.
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