The generation-defining Image that Captures the Futility and the Vietnam War

How can an image become a symbol? Estimates say that today, we produce more images per minute than in the 19th century. How can one image symbolize war’s horror and mobilize antiwar sentiment?

On June 8, it will be 50 years since Associated Press photographer Hyung-Cong “Nick Ut” captured one of the Vietnam War’s most iconic images.

The black-and-white still photo, titled “Accidental Napalum,” has been reproduced repeatedly and continues to exist in the collective memory.

The image is still shocking despite its age. A naked little girl runs directly at the spectator. She is slightly leaning forward, and her arms are extended from her body.

Her closeness to the lens of the camera is a direct message to the viewer. Her agony is clear.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc

The Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese Army were engaged in a battle in South Vietnam.

A group of journalists had gathered just outside Trang Bang village, which was occupied by North Vietnamese troops. South Vietnamese planes dropped four bombs from the sky.

Read more: Explainer: what is Napalm?

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.

A boy is screaming in fear on the left. Two more children run to the right while holding hands.

The viewer’s eyes move restlessly around the photo, looking for details. Photographers reload film in their cameras.

Two children run while holding hands. A photographer loads film into his camera. AP Photo/Nick Ut

Soldiers walk casually behind children who appear to be in distress. The contrast is striking, and it raises the emotional register of the photo: soldiers should be expected to assist.

The grainy texture of the image is very different from that of modern digital photography. Due to the smoke screen, the depth of field has been shortened. The spectator is forced to look at the girl because there is no horizon.

It took the girl, who had suffered burns, to the local hospital to receive treatment.

The details of the case began to surface: the child’s name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc, and she is nine years old. She was hiding with other members of her village and her family. She ripped off her clothes when they caught on fire during the strike.

The photo was initially rejected due to the girl’s bareness. AP Photo/Nick Ut

The shocking image, also known as “Napalm Girl,” almost did not reach the rest of the world. Initially, the Associated Press rejected the photo because the girl was naked. Newspapers adhere to strict conventions, and the frontal nakedness of a girl was considered an infraction.

This decision was overruled a few hours later by Horst F. Faas. The chief photo editor for the Associated Press in Vietnam reproduced the photograph.

Vietnam: The First Media War

The war in Vietnam was the first that was televised. The television crews recorded Kim Phuc’s escape. But It’s still image became famous and embedded in the collective memory.

The photo had an immediate impact. The image appeared in several influential magazines and newspapers, including Life. In 1973, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and World Press Photo.

Art historian Julian Stallabrass observed that very few victims of Napalm reached a hospital. Kim Phuc’s life was saved by the widespread distribution of Ut’s photo.

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