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Nick Ut's Napalm Girl Helped End the Vietnam War. Today in L.A., He's Still Shooting

Nick Ut in Cambodia, 1972
Nick Ut in Cambodia, 1972

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.

 

"That's an interesting thing that comes up," Buell says, speaking by phone from his home in New York. "The wiseguys say a photographer gets a picture like Nicky's, or like Joe Rosenthal's of Iwo Jima, or like Mal Browne's burning monk, that it's luck." The wiseguy term, in the photography world, is "f/16 and be there" — a reference to the f-stop, or aperture, of the camera lens. F/16 is a generic setting that almost always works. So, in essence, just be there.

But "being there" is not that easy. "You have to want to be there," Buell says. "And you have to be able to deal with what's involved in being in combat to be there."

On top of that is the level of skill involved in getting a shot under pressure. In a firefight, sure, you shoot what you can get your camera to look at. "But there are other kinds of combat photography where you can move, you can find the right angle, the right lighting, the right exposure, the right composition, to make a picture that says a lot more than a happy snap," Buell says. Rosenthal, for instance, didn't just point and shoot that classic image of Iwo Jima. As Buell points out, he pulled out some boulders, moved a sandbag, considered and rejected several angles. Buell, in other words, believes in skill.

Ut believes in skill, too. But on a deeper level, he trusts in luck and fate. Many photojournalists were killed in Vietnam — 135 total, according to Faas' count. By Ut's estimate, 90 percent of the AP photographers who covered the war got shot while there.

Ut had the bad luck to get injured but the good luck not to wind up dead. First he took shrapnel to the stomach from a Russian B-40 anti-tank rocket. A year later, he got shot in the upper chest, into the right armpit. He was raising his arm, camera in hand, when debris from an explosion grazed his scalp and shaved off some hair. "If I was just a little taller, my head would be cut off," he says with a grin. "Lucky guy."

Then, three months after he took Kim Phuc's picture, he was hit in the leg by mortar fire. He was on his way to visit her. Her house, unfortunately, was located near an entrance to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of supply routes used by the Viet Cong. After the mortar shell blew up, Ut noticed holes in his camera. Then his shirt. Then his thigh. A soldier dragged him to safety in a temple, and a fellow AP photographer drove him to a hospital.

After all three injuries, as soon as his wounds healed, Ut went right back to shooting. "A lot of people told me I'm crazy," he recalls. His family worried; they'd already lost his brother. "Don't worry," he reassured them. "It's not that easy to die."

Buell, now 83, was the AP's photo division chief for 25 years. He knows photographers — combat and otherwise. He supervised an international staff of 300 of them. "In Nick's case, he just kind of grew into it. What it takes is a certain fearlessness. A certain ability to keep a cool head, and once all hell is breaking out around you, to concentrate on making pictures."

Caught in the middle of a firefight, Buell notes, combat photographers often ask themselves: What the hell am I doing here? I'm not a soldier. I don't have to be here. "And the next day, of course, they go right back into it again. You can't explain it. It's an attitude. It's a desire to make a definitive picture. To capture the ultimate experience."

For his part, Ut says, only half-jokingly, that his brother's ghost protected him. He is superstitious about numbers. On the negatives, Napalm Girl was picture No. 7. Ut's brother was born seventh.

Ut believed that the enemy wouldn't harm him while he was holding a camera ... if they could see him clearly. If they couldn't, well, all bets were off. "My brother died because he carried a camera," he says. "He looked like a soldier. Camera looked like a gun."

"A lot of photographers feel the camera protects you," Buell notes. "It doesn't."

Ut certainly wanted to "be there." When evacuation time came, he did not want to leave Vietnam. But AP insisted. "Everyone who worked for America, or for the South Vietnamese government," Ut explains, "the Viet Cong might kill you or put you in jail."

So on April 22, 1975, the day after President Thieu resigned, 10 years after Ut began his career as a combat photographer, Ut kissed his mother goodbye, packed a small backpack of clothes and boarded a military flight out of Saigon. He wound up at a refugee camp near San Diego. For one month, he stayed at Camp Pendleton with some 20,000 other Vietnamese.

 

His luck held out there, too. "We had a lot of fun!" he says. Food available around the clock; nothing to do but eat and sleep. "I didn't want to get out of camp. America," he says, "No. 1!"

From Camp Pendleton he transferred to AP Tokyo, met a girl, got married and, in 1977, moved to Los Angeles for good. After 37 years of marriage, he and his wife have two grown children, a boy and girl, and a grandson who takes Ut's Napalm Girl to school for show-and-tell.

II.

At the Calabasas pet cemetery, Ut walks carefully among the graves. A breeze ruffles his eyebrows. A woman nearby sees his camera and purses her lips. "Don't take my picture," she snaps, though he's not even aiming at her. "I'm burying my horse today. This is my ninth horse." Ut murmurs his regrets.

"Very strange people sometimes," he says, as she walks away. Then, in a minute, unable to help himself, adds, "How many? She had nine horses die? Why? How?" He has a curious mind. "I'd love to take her picture," he says. "So sad. So angry."

He was a fish out of water his first few months in Los Angeles. He was the guy who, assigned to shoot an Angels game, asked his editor, "What's baseball?"

He watched a lot of sports TV after that. "Then I make the shot," he says. Luck is what you make it.

When his sports tour of duty was over, Ut moved on to general features — politics, business, crime, celebrities. He enjoyed shooting the war, no question. And for a while, many years ago, he even enjoyed shooting celebrities. But now, "Every time it's almost the same picture. Person waving. So boring."

Asked which celebs he has photographed, he answers simply, "All of them." The ones that spring most readily to mind are the lucky shots: Monica Lewinsky, at a party near her apartment in the Watergate complex, through the window from way the hell outside — he didn't even know what she looked like. "Nicky, she's a big girl," other photographers advised him. "Look for a beret."

O.J. Simpson, riding in a BMW, the day he returned to Los Angeles from Chicago to face police questioning about a double murder. Not the ghastly scene at Nicole's house ("blood everywhere") but O.J. through the car window. "The sun had dropped," he says. "Light was beautiful. Photographers asked me, 'Nicky, how did you take that picture? Did you use a flash?' No. Window was open!"

Paris Hilton, crying, headed for jail, shot through a cop car window. That was a weird one. The day was June 8, 2007 — exactly 35 years after Ut shot Napalm Girl. "Same day," he says. "Very strange."

He stashes his camera bag in the trunk of his silver Mercedes-Benz, a rattling, heavy old thing, with creaking doors and a busted air conditioner. In the trunk are boots, a helmet, a yellow firefighter's jacket and a largely superfluous news media vest. Ut has worked general assignment in L.A. for 27 years. Most of the cops know him by sight.

Other photographers follow him around, as they did in Vietnam. "They say, 'Nicky knows everything,' " he explains. In Saigon, he was one of the few local guys shooting the war. In Los Angeles, he's an old hand at covering the court scene. But usually, he eschews the crowd. "Those pictures are very boring," he says. "I want to go to different places. Try something different. Look for my own idea. If I see a lot of photographers, I get out of there. Might be a better picture somewhere else. Who knows?"

It's not Viet Cong snipers but the ubiquitous cellphone cameras that plague him in the modern, urban shooting environment. Now everyone is an amateur photojournalist. "With digital cameras, everyone jumps in. They all jam up too close. You know? Very difficult," he says.

In this manner, a random civilian with an iPhone might catch a better shot than Ut, weighed down by three or four heavy cameras and an $8,000 professional telephoto lens. "I remember a guy shot Michael Jackson when he died," Ut says. "He made a lot of money. Just one shot of a dead body. And Anna Nicole Smith. Somebody sold a picture of her for over half a million dollars." Ut frowns, but then reconsiders. "A lot of people have money, but they can never buy a job like mine. Every time I go somewhere, people call out, 'Nick Ut! Nick Ut!' and I'm so happy. You know? I think journalist is the best job in the world if you're lucky."

 

He is lucky. In the Los Angeles media community, only the paparazzi fail to treat him with reverence. They push. They shove. "They're animals!" Ut says. He's not angry, he decides. It's their job. "But my God! They don't care who you are. Bam! You're airborne. But I'm a lucky guy. Everyone else, they take care of me." In the photographers pit, the ones who don't know him push like crazy. The ones who do know him but push anyway, well, "I punch them right back," he says with a hearty laugh.

Ut was 14 when his older brother first handed him a camera. A novice ought to learn on a medium-format camera, La instructed.

"I don't like," young Nick replied. "I want one like your camera."

"You're so poor, you want to be like a rich man?" his brother said, laughing.

"He had a Leica," Ut says now. "Looks so beautiful to carry around." Then with a sly grin, he adds, "You look like a playboy."

The rudiments of photography, Ut learned from his brother. But perfecting photography — that he learned from the pros at AP. They taught him to look first, shoot later.

He recalls his friend and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Joe Rosenthal — "I called him my father" — who shot the iconic "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" with a bulky 4x5 Speed Graphic. "You know, one frame? Put the film in again? Shoot another frame? How slow is that? Very slow. But he made history. That kind of photography you need to learn."

Young photographers today, who "shoot 15 frames a second," exasperate him. "Too fast. Picture lousy. One frame. Show the best picture. That's how I learned. Look for the picture first."

Besides, "If you come back with 500 pictures from one assignment? Your boss will yell at you. Too many! Who wants to look at all those pictures?"

Ut is nothing if not pragmatic. He dislikes, for instance, pictures of dead bodies. "They're already dead. Why bother? I like pictures of people still alive. Screaming, laughing, crying, hurt — that tells story."

How does he find good pictures? Same as in Vietnam: He looks to the sky. In Vietnam, he looked for the trails of black smoke that indicate a fresh bombing. In Los Angeles, he looks for circling helicopters. That's where the action is. While at the scene, "I keep watching. If something happens, I shoot more pictures. But if it's like Ansel Adams — mountain, waterfall, cloud, rock — you don't need many pictures of that."

Stylistically speaking, Ut favors the medium-distance shot, although these days, he's sometimes forced to come close. Microphones and digital recorders held right up to the subject's mouth get in the way. "Why do you guys get so close?" he asks of reporters. "First of all, I can't see. I'm a short guy." Exactly how short, he forgets. He digs around in a pocket for his wallet and fishes out his driver's license. He is 5 feet 3 inches. "Too short, right?"

He gives up on the Silver Lake Reservoir and settles for an impromptu tour of the old Victorian houses in Echo Park. "Beautiful," he murmurs, driving slowly. "Look at that."

By noon, he has made it downtown. In Chinatown, he buys lunch at a favorite restaurant. But instead of eating it there, he drives to a Buddhist temple 15 minutes away. He prefers to keep moving, a habit from his combat days.

"In Vietnam, there was open freedom for media. You can jump on a helicopter or airplane or truck. Just show your media pass. Oh my God, so easy. The best."

At the red and gold jewel box that is the Thien Hau Temple on Yale Street, Ut chats up the employees, then settles onto a plastic stool at a folding table near the rear of the altar. Ut is a paradoxical combination of boastful and humble. Strangers want to shake his hand and pose for snapshots with him. American soldiers thank him; because of his picture, they say, they got to come home to their families. Men of a certain age who narrowly avoided the draft confess to him that, because of Napalm Girl, they didn't have to go to Vietnam. Ut's good luck, apparently, was contagious.

Today, the 35mm Leica M2 camera with which he shot Napalm Girl is in a museum — the Newseum, in Washington, D.C. Before that, it was at the London Science Museum. Back in June 2000, the Science Museum called him up shortly before the opening of a new wing. "They said, 'Nicky, the queen wants to see you,' " he recalls. "I said, 'You're kidding.' " A week later he was shaking the gloved hand of the queen of England.

 

"Unbelievable," he says now, the $4 Peking duck fried rice combo congealing in front of him on a Styrofoam plate.

Nevertheless, he considers himself fortunate just to be employed. "So poor," he says. "Lucky to have a job."

Though Ut isn't exactly what you'd call modest, neither is he a self-promoter in the current sense of the word. He has never written a book or published a monograph. He does not have a publicist. He does not blog, or have a website, or do Instagram or Twitter. When he needs to find his own published photos, he uses Google.

From the stairs at the Music Center, a fountain appears like an oasis in a desert of hot concrete. Children play in it, splashing water. Camera in hand, Ut kneels, as if genuflecting, with a big smile that says "perfection."

As he is shooting, two photographers whose names Ut can't recall come up to pay their respects. Then a press deputy from one of the county supervisors' offices, who is having coffee at a nearby table with a colleague, calls him over. Ut claims that somebody asks him about Napalm Girl every day. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that he brings it up with someone every day.

After shaking hands, Ut begins to speak, unbidden, about the photograph, telling the story he has told a thousand times before. The men listen respectfully, and then politely, and then start to look at their watches. "Those were the days," the colleague says.

Napalm Girl is never far from Ut's mind. Kim Phuc survived her napalm attack and left Vietnam in 1985 for Canada. In 1989, she reunited with Ut in Havana, where she was attending university. He touched the burn scars on her arms. She called him "uncle." These days, they speak by phone every week. As Hal Buell says, "Nicky is good at keeping in touch."

Technically, Ut sees Phuc every day. A huge print of Napalm Girl is on display at his house. The Terror of War, however, is kind of intense as living room decor. So Ut hung it up in the guest room, which also serves as a small museum devoted to his career. "It's a sad photo," he admits. "I cry sometimes when I go see it. I'm very sorry for the girl. She hurts so bad."

He knows that for the rest of his life, he will never take another photograph as good as this one.

After the war, Ut's family burned his possessions. The material evidence of his existence in Vietnam — gone. "They destroyed everything," he says. "They worry about the Viet Cong. The Vietnamese, they worry too much. They worry for nothing."

In this case, luck again was on his side. Not everything burned. The first time he returned to Vietnam, also in 1989, his family handed him a present. They'd discovered a stash of negatives Ut's brother had hidden behind the toilet. "They gave it to me in a small bag. They said, 'Here is all your film,' " Ut recalls. "I was so happy."

To this day, when Ut travels to Vietnam, people in his hometown, "They think I'm a hero. They cry. They hug me." His family is doing well. They are not poor. For a time, he regretted not being able to take them with him. "But today, I say if I'd brought them, I make a big mistake."

III.

These days, when Ut looks in the mirror, he is surprised to see an old man looking back. Advancing years mean the days when he actively misses the war are growing farther and farther apart. In his 30s, 40s and 50s, it was like the ache of a phantom limb. "I don't miss it at all," he declares now. But he still thinks about it, and talks about it, constantly.

Danger in Los Angeles is decidedly more sporadic. An earthquake here. A fire there. Ut is on it. "War, I can outrun. But not fire. Sometimes trees explode like bombs. You hear, 'Boom!' That was a tree. You can't believe how fast."

Doesn't matter what he covers: robberies, murders, shootings. "I keep thinking about the war." He remembers covering a shooting in Hollywood. "Get down! Get down!" the LAPD officer admonished him. "I said, 'Man, I was in the war! I'm not worried about getting shot.' They worry about me, but I know more than that guy. Not like Viet Cong. So boring."

For a brief, terrible, thrilling moment in 1992, Los Angeles felt like war. The Rodney King verdict had just been announced. "Everywhere, burning," Ut says. "So much danger." He went to Watts, Crenshaw, Florence in South L.A. The streets were deserted. There was fire and smoke. When he saw smoke burning in Central L.A., he went there. Cops had their guns out. The California Army National Guard was called in. They patrolled the streets in full battle gear, M-16 assault rifles drawn. "Now this is like war," Ut said. But it lasted only six days.

 

Ut expressed interest in going to the first Gulf War. "I asked AP," he says. But they declined to send him. He also considered covering the second war in the Middle East. But photographers have become fair game. That kind of danger gives him pause.

"Viet Cong didn't target journalists. Mostly they killed them by accident — they didn't know who you are, or you look like a soldier." In April, for instance, Afghan police deliberately shot and killed AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus in her car, Pulitzer Prize be damned. Ut shakes his head. "She was a nice lady. I don't know why they kill journalists there. You see all journalists, we work so hard, don't make any money."

He will not push his luck with this war. It's too dangerous for a family man. "When I was single, I didn't care if I died. But now that I'm married? Very difficult."

The Vietnam War defines not only Ut's consciousness but also his subconscious. The nightmares started when he got to L.A. In Saigon, he never dreamed. Here, he dreams about bombs. The rumble of an airplane or helicopter passing over his house can set him off. "Incoming!" he'll yell, startling himself out of sleep, body covered in sweat. Once he jumped up on the bed and scared his wife. "I didn't tell her my story," he says.

While he sleeps, his home in suburban Monterey Park becomes the Mekong River Delta of his youth, dark and menacing. The plots and characters of various near misses resurface. "Lots of close calls," he says. "Lots of dreams."

There was the time he ran over a landmine on a highway. He was in a jeep. Luckily, the vehicle wasn't heavy enough to trigger the anti-tank mine.

There was the time he was eating lunch with a colleague. They were talking, but when Ut looked back, midsentence, the guy was already dead. He'd been shot by a sniper.

"Those are in my dreams a lot, too," Ut says now. He points to a hill, thick with vegetation. "Coconut trees. Viet Cong hide at the top of the trees and shoot down." U.S. soldiers shoot up into the trees. Dead bodies tumble down like coconuts.

Parked in a patch of shade beside the Silver Lake Reservoir, MacBook Pro open on his lap, Ut uploads photos to AP's servers. He scrolls through the day's catch. "I like this one," he says. It's one from the fountain downtown. A slender little girl in a bathing suit, walking with arms held aloft like a gymnast, like Kim Phuc.

There is one close call he dreams about over and over again. It was morning, some five months after he'd shot Napalm Girl. He and a couple American soldiers were walking down a river path when, suddenly, a guy jumped out of the water. He'd been hiding in the mud. Ut was wearing an army uniform, "same as any soldier." The guy was a young Viet Cong, around Ut's age. Except where Ut carried a camera, the VC carried an AK-47.

Ut dove face forward into the water as the guy fired.

But he missed. He killed the soldier behind Ut instead. "I'm lucky," Ut says. "He was a bad shot."

Kim Phuc in 2007, holding Ut's The Terror of War
PHOTO BY BORJA DE LA LAMA/EPA/NEWSCOM

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