On Nick Ut's visit to Singapore, we chat with the photographer behind the iconic Napalm girl photo
When you're a man whose photograph has considerably contributed to an anti-war movement, everybody wants a piece of you. Even 46 years on. Throngs of photography enthusiasts and hobbyists flocked to the ArtScience Museum on 10 February to catch Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nick Ut give a talk for the first time in Singapore.
The Vietnamese was the young Associated Press (AP) photojournalist who shot the image of a nine-year-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, in the Trang Bang village on 8 June 1972. Titled 'The Terror of War', the iconic photograph captured the brutality of napalm bombings in the Vietnam War, sparking anti-war protests across the globe. The controversial image even had then president Nixon doubting its legitimacy, though it went on to win the World Press Photo of the Year in 1973. Incidentally, America's involvement in the war ended that same year.
Hours before his scheduled talk, the 66-year-old retiree appeared reserved, though he candidly fielded questions from a small group of journalists. The Long An native is now based in Los Angeles, and continues to give talks around the world thanks to German camera manufacturer, Leica. They share a long partnership — Ut was holding the Leica M2 when he shot Kim Phuc, and continues to use the Leica M and SL systems now. Hear from the photographer about the role of such images in today's digital age, and his close relationship with that little girl, who's now a 54-year-old grandmother.
On his early days as a young photographer: "In 1966, I asked for a job but they said, 'Too young, go home'. Two weeks later, I tried again and they [Associated Press] gave me a job in a darkroom. I learnt so much in the darkroom everyday and the company had to camp everywhere. I loved the small camera. I would play around with it and take a picture of the American GI in Saigon and when I came back, I would give my photo editor all the pictures and she would say, 'Nick, you're a good photographer'. Everytime we travelled, I would have a camera in case something happened."
On where the Napalm girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, is now: "She's married with two boys and I went to her son's wedding two years back. Now, she's become a grandmother. Like family, I call her all the time and ask her how she's doing. We travel together often."
On how the photo became public: "Before the picture came out, the editor told us that he didn't want that photo because the girl's naked and she's only nine-years-old. He heard the story and told me to caption the picture right away. Then, one editor said, 'Do you think America will use the picture with a naked girl? I don't care, let New York decide for themselves.' New York called, telling us that it's a bad picture that they would never use for the Saigon war. But the Chinese, Russian paper and Cuba papers all published it in the front page."
On putting your emotions behind you on the job: "In those days, you didn't have emotions. You were sent for a job, and the only thing that you think was telling your family, 'Goodbye, I may not come back'. Every day, I think I'll be dying. One time, the rocket burned all my hair. I told others that if I were a bit taller then my head would be gone. I've had nightmares after the war so I don't like to see war movies. I would see the helicopter in the air and the bomb landing, and my hands would be shaking."
On the future of photojournalism in the time of cost-cutting publishers and new media: "Photojournalism will always remain. Pictures speak louder than words. The only thing that has happened is that they want it faster, in higher quality, as quick as possible. Obviously, there isn't a very large place for photojournalists but it's a component that's always growing. From the national papers' point of view, they're cutting down because nobody's reading newspapers anymore. People are taking out their phone and they are reading the electronic version. Pictures are still there. Some may be shot on different mediums but photography will always remain."