From Napalm to Palm Trees

On June 8, 1972 then 21-year-old AP photographer Nick Ut took a history changing photo that will forever be known as “Napalm Girl”. Oi sits down with Nick to talk about the photo, Paris Hilton, and why Photoshop is cheating…

The “Napalm Girl” photo has been widely praised as the photo that stopped the war. Was it luck or skill? Or simply being at the right place at the right time?

Nick Ut: My brother was a very good photographer. He wanted to have a picture to stop the war. He also wanted to win a prize for his photography. But God never gave it to him. He was only 35 when he died. God gave it to me. That day there were a few photographers there. There was a guy from UPI [United Press International] and he was loading film when the villagers came running towards us. That was 40 years ago. Cameras weren’t like now. It took three minutes to change film. His hands were big and slow. My hands were small so I could change the film quickly.

My brother was brother number seven. That photo was number seven on the negatives. Whenever I think about that photo,

I put my hands together and say “thank you” to my brother.

It’s well documented how you put Kim Phuc [the “Napalm Girl”] into your car and got her to the hospital, using your press credentials to demand that she be treated. Inherent in being a photojournalist is the ethics of reporting the news versus helping those in need. How do you balance the two?

N: During the war, I saw thousands of people dying. I wanted to help so much. When you see people get shot, or injured people, or people who need help, you don’t just watch and let people die. People like Carter took the photo and didn’t help at all. [Nick references Kevin Carter who famously captured the scene of a Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture. Carter similarly won the Pulitzer in 1994 but committed suicide that same year.]

The photographer who took the photo of the guy in the subway being pushed also called me for advice. [Nick is speaking of freelance photographer R. Umar Abbassi who in December last year was highly criticized for taking a photo of a man being pushed onto the New York subway tracks just moments before being crushed by the train.] No way the train could’ve stopped. He said there were 50 people there and he was 30 yards away, running towards the man. But now everyone is angry at the photographer. I told him there’s no good answer. Keep cool. Don’t get involved. But I know that if I took the picture of Kim Phuc and didn’t help her and she died, I would have killed myself too.

Winning the Pulitzer is the peak for any photographer. Was it a blessing or a curse for it to have happened so early in your career, at the age of 22?

N: When I was a teenager, I was always thinking about what would be the perfect picture. Others who saw the photo knew how powerful it was. People told me that it was one of the best photos of the 20th century. At the time, I didn’t even know what the Pulitzer was. But I was happy.

Over 40 years later, people are still talking about the photo. Warren Beatty told me he cried when he saw my photo. I meet veterans all the time who say, “Thank you, Nick. I didn’t go to war because your photo.” Other people have said they came back early because of it.

For almost 40 years, you’ve been based in Los Angeles as an AP photographer. People there know you as Hollywood Nick. How has your career evolved to this point?

N: When I cover stories, people know who I am. Everyone knows the Napalm photographer. They all want me to take their picture. “I only want Nick,” they say. I don’t know why they want me. Joan Collins told me, “I know your pictures. I don’t believe you took that,” while she was opening champagne [after her win against publisher Random House]. Marlon Brando hated the media, but became a good friend. He always said “no” to everyone else. I think I have the best job in the world.

Your two most famous photos have been of “Napalm Girl” and of a crying Paris Hilton on the way to jail. A coincidence?

N: There were almost 400 people around her house. I saw her mother and father standing at the gate, so I stood there thinking they would say good-bye to their daughter. I didn’t even know I had a picture. I had just gotten back from vacation in Vietnam the day before. I didn’t have time to charge my flash. The battery was low. Somehow, I got off two flashes. It turned out to be the same photo 35 years later. Paris Hilton opened her mouth big almost exactly like Kim. Her hair was the same. God gave me clouds just like on napalm day. It was the same day [ June 8], same time.

When I was at the county jail, waiting for Paris Hilton’s arrival, my friend said, “Your photo is everywhere! It’s on CNN!” I didn’t think I had a picture; the [car] window was dark. God set up for me those two pictures.

How has photography changed since the time you started?

N: With film you have to make every picture count. Today it’s too fast. Before, when we took photos, we’d have to wait a couple of hours to see what we had. Now, you can take a photo and five minutes later, it’s on Yahoo or Google. Photography is too fast now. Cameras come with chips so you don’t even need a computer to beam photos somewhere. It’s hard to get overtime pay now. [laughs]

Is Photoshop cheating?

N: With my “Napalm Girl” photo, AP [initially] said we couldn’t use a photo of a nine-year-old girl, naked. AP didn’t allow us to retouch or crop the photo.

I don’t like Photoshop at all. Never liked it. Journalists don’t use Photoshop. If you use Photoshop [for anything other than toning the colors], you lose your job. My friend from LA Times photoshopped an image of an English soldier [in Iraq] with refugees. The next day, he lost his job. Out of all the photographers I’ve met in Vietnam, I think 70 to 80 percent of them Photoshop.

When you’re back in Vietnam nowadays, what catches your eye? What kind of photographs do you take?

N: I love Vietnam. I’m almost at retirement age. I might retire to London or Los Angeles or maybe even Vietnam. When I take photos now, I take them of business and peace. I want to show how the country has changed. Beautiful photos of the Vietnamese landscape from south to north and how busy Vietnam is today. The war was too long. I don’t want to show war anymore. I don’t want to talk about war. I don’t like war photos anymore.

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