On this day in 1972 a South Vietnamese girl was severely burned by napalm as a result of military conflict in the Vietnam War. A photographer named Nick Ut captured the moment on film, and the next day the image appeared on front pages around the globe. The iconic photo of the young girl became a symbol of the horror of war.
Was it the moment or the photo that changed this young girl’s life?
I have always been interested in both the short-term and long-term effects on the individuals who are thrust into the media spotlight in crisis or disaster situations. One of the most well known photographs across the globe is that of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming out in pain following a napalm attack. Photos have the ability to create an emotional impact on a viewer that words alone cannot. Reading that a young girl has been badly burned by napalm is quite different than seeing her horror-struck face and her naked and traumatized body. In regard to the power of photography, Mallette (1976) wrote, “The frozen moment remains. It can haunt. It can hurt and hurt again. It can also leave an indelible message about the betterment of society, the end of war, the elimination of hunger, the alleviation of human misery” (p. 120).
Photos do have the ability to affect positive change: the photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming out in pain did help change the way people saw the Vietnam War (Hariman, & Lucaites, 2007). But the impact of a photo such as this on the individual subject must not be ignored. People worldwide know this photo, but they do not know the young girl’s story or the effect of that photo on her life.
I grew up in the shadows of the Vietnam War and this photo has always held a distinct and haunting place in my psyche. In one of the defining events of my professional career, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Kim Phuc, the subject of this iconic photograph. She shared with me the profound impact this photo has had on her life. Her story, of course, has been well documented through the years but to hear her first hand account of the photo “haunting” her was unforgettable.
What follows is an excerpt from a longer article I wrote about Kim’s story and the effect of that photo on her life.
In 1972, Kim was 9 years old, living a peaceful life with her extended family in Trang Bang, a small village in Vietnam. Kim said, “I was never afraid before the war. And then the fighting started.”
Kim recalls, “I will never forget when the soldiers knocked on our door. I knew fear for the first time.”
That day was June 8, 1972. Kim and the other villagers were instructed to hide in the village temple, which was designated as a safe place in the village. However, the temple was not safe. When soldiers heard the planes coming, they told the children to “run to safety.”
Burning napalm filled the air and clung to Kim’s young body. Her clothes caught fire, so she started running and tearing her clothing from her burning flesh. As Kim ran down the road in terror and in pain, a photographer by the name of Nick Ut captured the moment on film. The next day the photo of Kim was printed on front pages around the world.
Again, photos have the ability to effect positive change: the photo of Kim did help change the way people saw the Vietnam War. But the impact of a photo such as this on the individual subject must not be ignored.
Napalm is a thick, jelly-like substance used in military warfare, which burns at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Kim describes the burn as “the most terrible pain you can imagine.” Kim still has physical pain to this day, but she does not focus on the pain.
The attack and subsequent photo changed Kim’s life forever, and although the napalm burned her body, it did not destroy her spirit. Today, Kim boldly states, “Terrible things can happen, but if we are lucky, we can learn from our experiences and it can help us to become stronger.”
Kim was not expected to live. When her parents found her three days later, she had been left to die in the “death room” of a local hospital. But Kim did not die. She was transferred to a larger hospital in Saigon where she remained for 14 months. Kim said she suffered “unbelievable pain” and endured 17 surgeries.
Upon finally returning home, Kim thought she was returning to her normal and peaceful existence. But everything had changed. Her family home had been destroyed, her body was covered in scars, and she had a lot of anger.
Kim constantly questioned, “Why me? Why do I have to suffer like this?”
Vietnam is a hot country and Kim wanted to wear short-sleeve shirts like the other girls. Kim said she would compare her two arms: one was “beautiful and smooth” and the other was “scarred.” She said, “I had a dream to look like other girls. I felt sorry for myself.”
She also feared being alone. She said, “I thought I would never have a boyfriend because of my scars.”
In additional to the physical pain and emotional trauma, the Vietnamese government turned Kim into a war symbol. Vietnam was a Communist-controlled country, and Kim was not free to make her own decisions. Kim was watched 24 hours a day. Officers would pick her up at school and force her to do media interviews.
Kim loved school and had aspirations of becoming a doctor. Kim said, “I wanted to be left alone to study, but they would not let me.” More than anything, Kim longed “to be free.”
In 1986, Kim obtained permission from the Vietnamese government to study at the University of Havana in Cuba. While studying at the University of Havana, Kim met a young Vietnamese man named Bui Huy Toan. She said with a shy smile, “He was so cute.” But Kim added that she was worried about what he would think of her scars.
But Bui loved her for who she was, and he told her, “Every time I touch your scars or see them I love you more because I know how much you suffered.”
Kim and Bui were married in 1992. The Vietnamese government granted them permission to honeymoon in Moscow. On return from their honeymoon, the airplane stopped to re-fuel in Newfoundland, Canada. Kim and Bui deplaned and asked the Canadian government for political asylum in Canada. Their asylum was granted, and today, Kim and her husband live a peaceful life in Toronto, Canada.
Kim joked that at the time, she only knew three things about Canada: “it was cold, people spoke English and French, and the flag was pretty.”
Kim and her husband arrived in Canada with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But Kim told her husband, “We have each other, and we have freedom.”
Today, Kim and Bui have two sons who Kim calls “my miracles.” Thomas and Stephen speak three languages, and Kim says with a proud smile, “They always correct my English.”
Finding peace did not come easily for Kim. But over time, she learned to stop complaining and to start counting her blessings. She said, “I stopped asking, ‘why me?’ Instead I asked, ‘God please help me.’”
Kim knows that she should have died in the Vietnam War, but she began to realize that her life was saved for a reason. Kim learned that there was “value in suffering.”
She added, “I forgive but don’t forget. Faith and forgiveness are more powerful than napalm could ever be.”
Although Kim was healing emotionally, the notoriety of the photo would not let her go. One day on the streets of Toronto, a photographer spotted her, and the next day she was once again thrust into the public eye. She said,” I wanted to hide from the photo, wanted to lead a quite life, but the photo haunted me.”
But Kim learned, “if I couldn’t escape it, I could use it for peace.” She said the picture became a “powerful gift.”
In addition, Kim’s credits the photographer, Nick Ut, with saving her life. Today, they maintain a close relationship, and she affectionately refers to him as “Uncle Ut.”
The fame that the photo brought Kim has allowed her to become an advocate for peace. In 1994, Kim was named as a UNECSO Goodwill Ambassador. As an ambassador, Kim travels the world promoting peace and understanding. She has also begun the Kim Foundation International, which helps to heal the physical and psychological wounds suffered by child victims of war. Kim travels to meet many of these innocent victims with the intention of restoring hope to their lives. Today, Kim says, “I don’t cry for myself, I cry now for other children.”
Kim’s message for the world is simple but profound: “If that little girl could learn to forgive, everyone else can do it to. If everyone can learn to live with love, hope, and forgiveness, there would be no need for war.”
Kim wants the world to learn a “new way” of looking at her picture. She said, “Don’t see that little girl as crying in pain and fear. See her as crying out for peace.”
She added, “My photo is a symbol of war, but my life is a symbol for love, hope and forgiveness.”
Image credit: AP Photo/Nick Ut/June 8, 1972