‘Accidental Napalm’ at 50

Fifty years on, one might imagine ‘we’ are fighting a new, bloodless war. We are not.

Photo by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut

07 June 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

We feel as though we are bearing witness to the current war. The heart-wrenching images of fleeing refugees. The scorched vehicles and the bombed churches and homes.

We do not usually see the makeshift graves or the families living in basements for days or weeks or months at a time, knowing full well that, if they venture out in search of food or water, a sniper might take another innocent life.

We are also spared the blood. Blood means death. Blood means war. Blood means we have screwed up once again. Blood means we looked away at the very moment we should have spoken out in their defense.

The blood in Dombass has been on the ground for a very long time. The people who were spilling that blood for a very long time are still doing so.

The new blood from the other guided missiles is the same innocent blood.

The innocents no longer care which side is spilling their blood. They just want it to stop. After eight years they simply want peace. They want church on Sunday. They want schools for their children. They want bread and water and a night without running from bed in terror.

In 50 years, will look we back at this war and once again nervously proclaim that we did not know. How could we have known? How, indeed.

James Porteous | Clipper Media News

‘Accidental Napalm’ turns 50: the generation-defining image capturing the futility of the Vietnam war

It is perhaps the iconic image of the horrors of war: A young girl running in terror, after being badly burned by napalm. The haunting image of Kim Phuc, now a Toronto resident, was taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut.

It is perhaps the iconic image of the horrors of war: A young girl running in terror, after being badly burned by napalm. The haunting image of Kim Phuc, now a Toronto resident, was taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut.

06 June 2022 | Chari Larsson | The Conversation

How does an image become an icon? It is estimated that we now produce more images in two minutes than we did in the entire 19th century. How, then, can one image be so powerful it can symbolise the horror of war and help mobilise anti-war sentiment?

June 8 marks the 50 year anniversary since Associated Press photographer Hyung Cong “Nick” Út captured one of the Vietnam War’s defining images.

Titled “Accidental Napalm”, the black-and-white still photograph has since been repeatedly reproduced and continues to survive in collective memory.

Despite its age, the image continues to retain the capacity to shock. A little girl is naked and running directly towards the spectator. She is leaning slightly forward, and her arms are held out from her body.

Her proximity to the camera’s lens is a direct address to the viewer: her agony and terror is unambiguous.

Phan Thị Kim Phúc

A battle was underway in South Vietnam between the South Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong.

Several journalists had assembled just outside the village of Trảng Bàng, which had been occupied by North Vietnamese forces. South Vietnamese planes flew overhead and dropped four napalm bombs.

A few moments later, a group of terrified survivors – including children – came running through the smoke and down the road towards the group of journalists.

In the immediate left foreground, there is a boy screaming in terror. To the right, holding hands, two more children are running.

The spectator’s eye moves restlessly around the photograph, searching for details. A photographer reloads film into his camera.

Holding hands, two children are running. A photographer reloads film into his camera. AP Photo/Nick Ut

Soldiers are walking casually behind the children, seemingly indifferent to their distress. The juxtaposition is striking and raises the photograph’s emotional register: soldiers are expected to help and provide assistance.

The image has a grainy texture very different to the smoothness of contemporary digital photography. The depth of field is truncated due to the screen of billowing smoke. With no horizon to offer respite, the spectator’s gaze is forced to return to the little girl.

After taking the photographs, Út was able to take the girl to a local hospital where she received treatment for her burns.

Gradually, details surrounding the children began to emerge: the little girl’s name was Phan Thị Kim Phúc and she was nine years old. She had been hiding with her family and other village members. She tore her clothes off when they caught fire in the strike.

Informally known as “Napalm Girl”, the confronting image almost didn’t reach the rest of the world. Initially the photograph was rejected by the Associated Press because of the girl’s nakedness. Newspapers are bound by strict conventions, and frontal nudity was considered a breach in propriety.

A few hours later, this decision overruled by Horst Faas, Associated Press’s chief photo editor in Vietnam and the photograph was reproduced by newspapers across the world.

Read more: The photographer’s war: Vietnam through a lens

Vietnam: the first media war

The war in Vietnam was the first to be televised. Television crews documented Kim Phúc’s escape, but Út’s still image achieved notoriety and became embedded in collective memory.

The photograph had an immediate and widespread impact. It appeared in influential newspapers and magazines including Life and Newsweek. Its place in the history of photojournalism was secured when it won both the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and the World Press Photo in 1973.

As art historian Julian Stallabrass has observed, very few napalm victims reached a hospital. It was the broad circulation of Út’s photograph that led to Kim Phúc receiving the advanced medical treatment that saved her life.

Kim Phúc visited by Associated Press photographer Ut in 1973. AP Photo

Kim Phúc has become the subject of television documentaries, as well as a biography documenting her life and defection from Vietnam to Canada.

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag argued the photograph “belongs to the realm of photographs that cannot possibly be posed.”

In the 50 years that have passed, our attitudes towards photography have shifted.

Today, with phone photography so ubiquitous, most of us can take reasonable images. Our trust in photography’s “truth” status has declined. This can partly be attributed to the ubiquity of social media content that is regularly “embellished” or “enhanced”.

In 2016, the photograph was in the news again, this time for violating Facebook’s censorship rules on nudity.

In 1972, “Accidental Napalm” became the generation-defining image that captured the futility of the war in Vietnam.

When we turn our attention to Ukraine, it is perhaps still too early in the conflict for one photograph to emerge as the iconic symbol of Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion.

Read more: Photos of wartime Europe still shape views of conflict – here’s how we’re trying to right the record

‘Napalm girl’ wins Dresden Prize for peace work

Ms Phuc now works to promote peace

Kim Phuc became internationally recognised after she was pictured running from a napalm bomb in 1972 in Vietnam.

By Rebecca Taylor, news reporter 11 February 2019

The woman who became known as the “Napalm girl” after her appearance in an iconic Vietnam war photo has won a German peace prize.

Kim Phuc became known worldwide when she was pictured aged nine running down a road crying and naked, with burns across her body, after a napalm bomb was dropped on her village.

The photo, taken by Nick Ut, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, a year after it was taken, and now more than four decades on, Ms Phuc, 55, has won the Dresden Prize in recognition of her work with UNESCO and children wounded in war.

Past recipients of the Dresden Prize include former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and American civil rights activist, Tommie Smith, and the Duke of Kent.

Vietnam war survivor Kim Phuc Phan Thi in front of the photo for which she is known
Image: Vietnam war survivor Kim Phuc Phan Thi in front of the photo for which she is known

In explaining why she was given the prize, the organisation said that for a long time Ms Phuc had wanted to escape her association with the picture, which reminded her constantly of the day everything changed for her.

The statement adds: “That is, until Kim could bring herself to accept as her personal fate, that she cannot escape the photo. Until she understood that it represents rather a mandate directed to her; until she was able to see it as a gift.

“She became a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO, founded an organisation for children wounded and maimed in war, and speaks each year to thousands of people.

“And they listen to her, especially when she, who today still suffers under the pains from that napalm attack, speaks of reconciliation, without which there cannot be peace. They listen especially when she calls to forgiveness.”

The statement continues: “We live in times during which hate is generally at large. But it is repeatedly the victims of violence and war who renounce hate.

“And in doing so they demonstrate human greatness, to the shame of the preachers of hate. Kim Phuc Phan Thi has shown just such greatness and so has become a worldwide exemplar.”

The prize includes €10,000 (£8,700) and is presented at the Semper Opera House in Dresden.


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