Interview with Nick Ut 40 years after the ‘napalm girl’ picture: Proof that journalism matters and that it can make a difference
If you ever find yourself wondering whether journalism is a noble profession and whether it can make a difference I would recommend reading my interview with Nick Ut – which appeared first in last week’s edition of Press Gazette – Journalism weekly, our new digital magazine all about journalism.
The veteran AP photographer is a remarkable man. The Vietnamese photographer who captured the famous ‘napalm girl’ picture explained why he believes it helped stop the war and why it has also meant photographers no longer have the freedom to cover conflicts as they once did.
Some forty years after Nick Ut took the most famous picture of the Vietnam war, he says he regularly gets thanked by US citizens who believe that his photo stopped them being sent to Vietnam.
He was on Highway One when the napalm shells began to rain down on Vietnamese homes in June 1972.
Families, mothers and children began pouring out of the buildings including a terribly burned nine-year-old Kim Phuc.
After taking a series of pictures, then 21-year-old Ut – whose brother was one of 100 journalists killed during the Vietnam war – drove her to hospital and had to flash his press badge in order to persuade the doctors to help her.
Back at AP’s Saigon bureau Ut says a picture editor was reluctant to put the photo out. Legendary AP photographer Horst Haas over-ruled and it became a picture that went across the world. It was later acclaimed as the best news picture of the Vietman war.
The political impact in the US was immediate. Asked whether he believes his photo helped change US policy in Vietnam, Ut says: “After the picture appeared right away I met so many American soldiers who said ‘I’m going home because your picture stopped the war’. I still meet people who thank me and say ‘I never went to Vietnam because your picture stopped the war’.”
Asked how foreign reporting has changed in the last 40 years, Ut says: “In the Vietnam war you could go anywhere you wanted. After the picture of napalm girl and other pictures you don’t have any freedom to cover war any more. They control the media a lot more now. They don’t want more pictures like napalm girl.
“In Iraq and Afghanistan it’s very different. That’s why I don’t want to go to another war.”
If Ut hadn’t taken young Kim to hospital he believes she would have died from her terrible injuries. “If she had stayed there another 30 minutes she’d have died because it was so hot in the village. That’s why I am so glad I helped her.”
Today the pair are still close. He says: “I talk to her once a week. She calls me Uncle Nick, she’s like my daughter. I always worry about her and try to help her.”