It was a lucky shot, some say of Nick Ut's famous Vietnam War photo The Terror of War, or Napalm Girl, as it is more commonly known. Less lucky, of course, was the little girl in the photo, Kim Phuc. She was running down the street, naked, after a napalm attack on her village. Her skin was melting off in strips. Her home was burning in the background. It was June 8, 1972. Ut was 21 years old. "When I pressed the button, I knew," Ut says. "This picture will stop the war." It has been 42 years since then. But that moment still consumes him.
He is 63 now, agile and white-haired, save for bushy black eyebrows that have a life of their own. He is still a photographer, still for the Associated Press — only in Los Angeles instead of Saigon. Here in L.A., he has settled into a schedule that has been much the same for decades: Arrive at AP's downtown offices by 7 a.m., check messages, read the newspaper, shoot a feature assignment. If breaking news happens, or he can find something else to shoot, he does. He's done by 4:30 p.m.
Today's assignment is a pet cemetery in sleepy, upscale Calabasas — birds chirping, leaves rustling, the thrum of a lawnmower. "Boring," Ut says, with an apologetic sigh.
Ut grew up in Long An, a village near Saigon, the second youngest of 11 siblings. As a teenager, he lived with his older brother La, a photographer with AP's Saigon bureau. Before that, La had been a movie star. "Every Vietnamese actress knew who he is," Ut says. "He was handsome. Very tall. And the women with him? Always beautiful."
La was obsessed with taking a picture that would stop the war. In October 1965, however, he was shot and killed by Viet Cong while waiting for a helicopter.
Three months after La's funeral, Ut asked his brother's editor, Horst Faas, for a job. What use did Faas have for a skinny 15-year-old kid? "Go to school," he told Ut. "Go home."
"AP is my home now," Ut insisted.
Faas reluctantly hired Ut to work the darkroom. He'd make prints, process film, be a gopher. Soon he was shooting feature photos around Saigon City — urchins, the black market, politics.
"Then, all of a sudden, in 1968, Tet breaks out," recalls Hal Buell, former AP photography director. "Nick had a scooter by then. He scooted around making these pictures of battle scenes. He showed the adeptness and smarts you have to have to be a good combat photographer." The quest to take a picture that would stop the war became Ut's.
The moment came in late spring, 1972. Ut had heard there was fighting near the North Vietnamese–occupied village of Trang Bang and went to cover it. Refugees had clogged the road into the village. He stopped at a bridge with several soldiers and other journalists. Around 1 p.m., a South Vietnamese plane dipped low on a run aligned with the highway and released its napalm payload onto the village — an accident, it would turn out.
Dark smoke filled the air. Ut heard screaming. Then, the running villagers — women, children, a dog. An old lady with a burned boy in her arms. The photographers shot until they had no film left, then turned to the cumbersome business of reloading. The horror, however, wasn't over yet. Lagging behind, 9-year-old Kim Phuc emerged out of the smoke, naked, arms raised, melted flesh falling off her back.
"Too hot! Too hot!" she cried.
Ut reached for his spare camera and took the shot. Then he covered Phuc with a raincoat from a nearby soldier, trundled her into his car and drove her to the hospital, saving her life.
Later, Ut would say that when he pressed the shutter button, he thought of his brother. That he actually heard La's voice whispering, "Stop the war."
"I told him, 'I have the picture you are thinking about,' " Ut recalls now. "And everything came true."
Six months later, the war did stop. In January 1973, the United States, North Vietnam and South Vietnam signed the Paris cease-fire agreement. By March 30, the last American personnel left Saigon. By April, Ut had won the Pulitzer Prize. He was 22. His photo ran on the front page of practically every newspaper and magazine in the world, and is credited with swaying public opinion against the war. Time has proven it to be not only the iconic photo of the Vietnam era but also one of the most haunting and memorable of the entire 20th century.
As editor Faas once said, "It's a picture that doesn't rest."
Was it luck? Ut was not the only photographer on the scene that day. There were at least 10 other news outlets present. "They did not get it," Ut says. By the time naked, screaming Kim Phuc staggered by, their film — and luck — had run out.