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A single photo can change the world. I know, because I took one that did

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Can a photograph help end a war ?

Pictures from Ukraine by combat photographers, including contract photographer James Nachtwey and Associated Press photojournalists Felipe Dana, Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, have brought to light the horrific consequences of Russia’s invasion and the unconscionable treatment of innocent civilians.

Fifty years ago, I was in the same position as those photographers, working for the Associated Press in Vietnam.

I was inspired to become a photojournalist by my brother, who worked at the AP before I did, and whose mentor was the great Horst Faas. My brother taught me how to use cameras. Before he died covering a battle, he told me: “I hope one day you have a picture that stops the war.”

Horst strongly objected when I decided to follow in my brother’s footsteps. He said he did not want to have to call my mother to say that a second son had died. I told him that I understood the risk and that it was my choice.

I was inspired by my brother’s belief that photography can serve the cause of social justice, but I didn’t know if one photo could have the power he suggested. Today, many credit my photo “Napalm Girl” for hastening an end to the Vietnam War. What I know for sure is that it depicts the absolute horrors of war — defined by a young girl running naked amid destruction and death.

On June 7, 1972, I learned about fighting taking place in Trang Bang, a small village roughly 30 miles northwest of Saigon. I still have vivid memories of my drive the next morning to Trang Bang, seeing rows of bodies by the side of the road and hundreds of refugees fleeing the area. I eventually arrived at a village destroyed by days of airstrikes. The residents were so tired of the constant battles, they fled their village to seek refuge on the streets, under bridges or wherever they could find a moment of calm.

By midday, I had the photos I thought I needed. I was preparing to leave when I saw a South Vietnamese soldier drop a yellow smoke bomb, which served as a target signal, near a group of buildings. I picked up my camera, and a few seconds later captured the image of a plane dropping four napalm bombs on the village.

When the bombs exploded, we didn’t know whether anyone had been injured. All morning, the village had seemed empty. But many people were hiding inside the village temple.

As we came closer, we saw people fleeing the napalm. I was horrified when I saw a woman with her left leg badly burned. I can still see so vividly the old woman carrying a baby who died in front of my camera and another woman carrying a small child with his skin coming off.

Then I heard a child screaming, “Nong qua! Nong qua!” Too hot! Too hot! I looked through my Leica viewfinder to see a young girl who had pulled off her burning clothes and was running toward me. I started taking pictures of her.

Then she yelled to her brother that she thought she was dying and wanted some water. I instantly put my cameras down so I could help her. I knew that was more important than taking more photos. I took my canteen for her to drink and poured water on her body to cool her off, but it created more pain for her. I didn’t know that when people get burned so badly, you’re not supposed to put water on them.

Still in shock, and amid the confusion of everyone screaming, I put all the kids into the AP van.

I drove them to Cu Chi hospital, since it was the closest to Trang Bang. The girl kept crying and screaming, “I’m dying! I’m dying?” I was sure she was going to die in my van.

At the hospital, I learned that her name was Phan Thi Kim Phuc. She had suffered third-degree burns on 30 percent of her body. The doctors were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of wounded soldiers and civilians already there. They initially refused to admit her and told me to take her to the larger Saigon hospital. But I knew she would die if she did not get immediate help. I showed them my press badge and said, “If one of them dies I will make sure the whole world knows.” Then they brought Kim Phuc inside. I never regretted my decision.

Once stable, she was transferred from Cu Chi to the children’s hospital in Saigon and eventually to a burn unit there. But her injuries weren’t the only hurt Kim Phuc suffered in the attack. She lost two nephews, and one of her brothers was severely wounded, too.

Kim Phuc was allowed to return home for justone day after a year in the burn unit. I went to visit her that day, bringing toys and books from the Red Cross and fruits and cakes from the AP office. Her family home was destroyed, but Kim Phuc was smiling. It was nice to see her be with her entire family and play with kids again in the village.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, I didn’t see Kim Phuc until I met her again in Cuba in 1989. I was on assignment and she was a visiting student studying Spanish and pharmacology. She introduced me to her fiance, named Toan. Before she met him, because of her burns, she thought that she could never be loved and that nobody would want to marry her.

They both wanted to defect. After her wedding, a friend gave the couple money for a honeymoon to Moscow, and they found their opportunity. When the plane stopped to refuel on the way back to Cuba in Gander, Newfoundland, Kim Phuc and Toan left their things behind and went to customs, saying, “We defect.” The Canadians initially refused to accept her. But upon learning that she was the girl in the famous photo, she and Toan were granted amnesty.

Today, they live in Toronto with their two children. Kim Phuc is a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. She has books about the war throughout her house but doesn’t want to see any war pictures, nothing to remind her of the nightmare there. She became a Christian and goes to church every week. Even though she is always smiling, I see her pain and what we saw and endured 50 years ago.

Though Kim Phuc hated the photo in the beginning, she now believes that it has given her a purpose. She uses her voice to work for peace and help others suffering a similar fate in war-torn countries.

Kim Phuc and I are two people intertwined in history. To this day, I view her as family. She calls me “uncle,” and I talk with her often. But I will always hate the circumstances in which we met.

Viewing the horrors of war in person provides a perspective that few can ever experience. At the same time, amid the death and destruction of war, the resiliency of humanity shines through — and I am reminded of that each time I see a picture of Ukrainians supporting their fellow citizens through this challenging time.

It is with this optimism in my heart that I hope that when Russian soldiers come upon an innocent Ukrainian girl in need of help, they feel the same impulse I once did, put their guns away and take care of a fellow human.

I am proud of my photo and the emotions and conversations it created around the world. Truth continues to be necessary. If a single photo can make a difference, maybe even help end a war, then the work that we do is as vital now as it has ever been.

By Nick Ut – The Washington Post – June 2, 2022

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