On June 8, 1972, Nick Ut, then a 20-year-old photographer for the Associated Press, strapped on four cameras and headed down Highway 1 north of Saigon. Just after noon, he noticed a South Vietnamese Skyraider dropping four napalm bombs.
The villagers dispersed and he heard a young girl shouting, “Nong qua! Nong qua! – Too hot ! Too hot !
“My eye kept shooting and I saw a girl running with her arms like that,” Ut said.
He looked through his viewfinder and saw that the girl, 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, had taken off her burning clothes and was running naked down the street.
“It brings back a lot of bad memories,” she said. “Sometimes I didn’t believe I was that little girl.”
“The Napalm Girl,” as the photograph quickly became known, appeared in newspapers around the world, including A1 in The New York Times on June 9.
It became, almost immediately, an iconic image that for many symbolized the failures of the Vietnam War.
Ut won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1973, but today the photography speaks to the horror of war as a whole and connects viscerally with images of civilian casualties emerging from Ukraine.
After taking the photo, Ut put his camera aside to rush Phuc to the hospital, where doctors saved his life.
“It was just me with my driver there, and then I said I didn’t want to leave because I know she’s going to die,” Ut recalled. “Then I picked her up, put her in the van and took her to the hospital.”
Phuc then resettled in Canada and raised a family there, while Ut became an AP photographer based in Los Angeles, photographing high-profile celebrities until his retirement from the news agency in 2017.
Both were in New York on Monday for an event at the Fotografiska Museum ahead of the 50th anniversary.
“I feel like it happened,” Phuc said. “Time is already running 50.”
Phuc said that for a long time she was embarrassed by the photo, but over time her attitude changed and she turned to comforting young war victims who pleaded for peace.
“This photo became a very powerful gift for me to have the opportunity to do something in return to help people,” Phuc said. “Now we are facing the violent shooting in the school, it’s another war,” she said.
This is another reason why this mother and grandmother continue to speak out on behalf of young victims of war.
“I have dedicated the rest of my life to helping suffering children around the world,” she said.
On Monday, they looked at the original negatives from that day, housed in an Associated Press office in Lower Manhattan, and the feelings all came back.
“I feel so sad when I took the picture, but I’m so happy that I took the picture,” Ut said.
He preserved history for all to see and for all to learn from.
“We have to learn to love each other, to have hope and forgiveness,” Phuc said.
It’s profound coming from a woman who still bears the scars of war physically and emotionally.
Recalling the horror of that day, Phuc said that 50 years ago she was only known to the world as a victim of war.
“But right now, 50 years later, I am no longer a victim of war,” she said. “I am a mother, grandmother and survivor calling for peace.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
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