Photojournalist Nick Ut & His Iconic Photo “Napalm Girl”

Photojournalist Nick Ut & His Iconic Photo “Napalm Girl”

More than 50 years have passed, but the name Nick Ut (Huynh Cong Ut) still regularly appears in many articles, seminars, workshops or photo exhibitions in many countries around the world. He is well known as the first Vietnamese and also the youngest person in history to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his black and white photo officially entitled "The Terror of War”, which is better known by the nickname given to the badly burned, naked 9-year-old at its center, "Napalm Girl". However, not everyone knows about his background, a photojournalist who is easy going, sociable and friendly in his lifestyle, gentle, flirty and witty while talking but serious, enthusiastic, creative and willing to sacrifice himself to  capture  historic moments that not all photojournalists will do.


To me, a reporter working for Vietnam Pictorial, a leading provider of external information services in Vietnam and the only print press product of Vietnam to make its appearance in many countries around the world, it was a great opportunity to listen to photo journalist Nick Ut talking about press photos, the historical photo that shocked the world 50 years ago, and his experiences in taking photos everywhere. 

The timeless photo “Napalm Girl” by Nick Ut.
Nick Ut and Kim Phuc, the liltle girl who cries naked in the photo, pose together.

When meeting him, I was very surprised because he looked much younger than his 72 years. His demeanor was quick and his voice was soft, with a friendly and approachable smile. Those were my first impressions of Nick. It was not until I had a chance to talk with him in the Luc Thuy Cafe near Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, that I could somewhat feel the person behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographer through his stories about his career "From Hell to Hollywood".

Our conversation began with his passion for photography and then becoming an AP photojournalist. Since he was a child, he always admired his brother Huynh Thanh My - a war correspondent for AP who was the first person to teach him the basics of photography and gave him an old camera to take his first photos. His brother also told him about the brutality of the war as well as the sufferings that the Vietnamese people had to endure. Nick soon became aware of the losses caused by the war that he and his family also experienced when his older brother was killed while working.

Following his brother’s career, he went to work for AP at the age of 16 and after spending two years working in the agency’s photoshop darkroom, Nick Ut was allowed to take photos. His first picture was about a nun who set herself on fire to protest against the war in Vietnam while other Buddhist followers were seen crying.  His picture was posted on the front page of the AP and was a driving force, urging him to become a war photo journalist.


Photos by Nick Ut.

During his career, he has taken thousands of photos of the war, famous Hollywood legends and all aspects of life, but the photo “Napalm Girl”  is the most impressive and long-lasting one.

Taken outside the village of Trang Bang on June 8, 1972, the horrifying photograph of children fleeing a deadly napalm attack has become a defining image not only of the Vietnam War but the 20th century. Dark smoke billowing behind them, the young subjects' faceis painted with a mixture of terror, pain and confusion. The girl, since identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, ultimately survived her injuries. This was thanks, in part, to Nick Ut, who assisted the children after taking his now-iconic image. 

Nick  Ut during his trips in Vietnam. Photo: The Phong

The heart-breaking photo earned a Pulitzer Prize for Nick Ut in 1973 and he became the first Vietnamese in the 20th century to be awarded one of the most prestigious awards in journalism. The picture also won many other international awards, and is ranked 41st in the 100 most influential photos of the 20th century and one of the 10 most memorable press photos in 50 years.

Nick Ut said that during his career and on the occasions of attending seminars and workshops, and meeting with top world leaders such as Queen Elizabeth, Pope Francis, former President Trump and some of the world's top photographers like Carol Guzy, James Nachtwey, Hollywood stars and American and Vietnam veteran, he received high praise and appreciation for his photo.

Recalling an unforgettable memory when he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Trump at the White House in 2021, Nick Ut said that he was the first photojournalist in history to be awarded this medal because the honor is usually given to Hollywood movie actors. He was proud to be Vietnamese and of his country. At the ceremony, President Trump affirmed that Ut's photo changed the direction of the war and brought peace to the world. 

Some photos by Nick Ut in Vietnam.

The photo also has had a great influence on a new generation of the world's top photographers.  According to Nick Ut,  photojournalist Carol Guzy of the Washington Post, the first journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize four times, and photographer James Nachtwey have confessed that it was the photo "Napalm Girl" that inspired them to become war photographers. Legendary AP photojournalist Horst Faas, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, once told Nick that there are many Pulitzer-wining pictures that are often forgotten over time but “Napalm Girl” will be remembered forever.

Photographer Nick Ut shares his experiences at Vietnam Pictorial, Vietnam News Agency. Photo: VNP

For Nick Ut, this is a noble reward, and an endless source of motivation for him to make contributions to photography.

Nick passionately told me about his good memories, unforgettable events and moments that he luckily captured on film, as well as his experiences of more than 50 years working for AP.  According to Nick Ut in order to take valuable press photos, photojournalists must be brave, dynamic and self-motivated at the scene. At any event, it is very important to observe one’s surroundings, especially main figures, to be able to capture their feelings and always be ready to work so as not to miss precious moments. Photojournalists need to be creative to find new angles. 

At present, although Nick Ut is retired, he continues taking photos in many countries around the world and carries out his projects and plans. Nick Ut also plans to return to Vietnam many times, especially Hanoi, the city he has a special love for, to record the beauty of life, as well as Hanoians  and maybe through the lens of the legendary photographer, there will be moments that will become history. 

By Dang Huyen - Song An/VNP   Photos: The Phong