Photographer Reflects on Missing Napalm Girl Photo While Loading Film

Earlier this month was iconic photo Napalm Girl‘s 40 year anniversary, and while most of the world was looking back on one of the most striking images ever taken, one photographer was reminiscing over a lost opportunity. In an article for the Washington Post photojournalist David Burnett, who was with Napalm Girl photographer Nick Ut when he took the photo, describes how he missed the opportunity because he was busy loading more film:

There was, necessarily, a moment when your finite roll of film would end at frame 36, and you would have to swap out the shot film for a fresh roll before being able to resume the hunt for a picture. In those “in between” moments, brief as they might have been, there was always the possibility of the picture taking place.

[…] I was changing film in one of my old Leicas, an amazing camera with a reputation for being infamously difficult to load. As I struggled, a Vietnamese air force fighter came in low and slow and dropped napalm on what its pilot thought were enemy positions. Moments later, as I was still fumbling with my camera, the journalists were riveted by faint images of people running through the smoke.

That’s when Nick Ut — and his already-loaded-Leica — ran forward and captured the now 40-year-old photo of Kim Phuc and her brothers running away from the burning Napalm.

When they arrived back at the Associated Press dark room him and a few others were the first to see the still wet 5×7 of the photo that would forever be associated with the horrors of war — a photo that was almost his. Fortunately, Burnett took it as a learning experience, and his photojournalism career has been one of the most successful in the industry.

But still, situations like this are bound to make you think “what if?” Ironically enough, on Napalm Girl‘s 40th anniversary, while the a digital world reflects on the famous photo, Burnett is still shooting film… still taking his chances with those “in between” moments.

Forty years after ‘napalm girl’ picture, a photographer reflects on the moment that might have been his (via Popular Photography)

Image credits: Photographs by David Burnett (top) and Nick Ut (bottom)

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    oh, poor David – you didn’t get to photograph children burning. how sad for you. UGH. sometimes photographers annoy the shit out of me.

  • Mark Zimmerman

    “Burnett is probably one of the few thinking that the move away from film was a good thing.”
    What a strange and inaccurate statement to end on.  Burnett still shoots film, even with a more difficult camera than the Leica

  • Albert Zablit

    Opportunity constantly hangs on a thin thread for many photographers out there. I find it fascinating to hear people’s experiences with it.

  • Mansgame

     That’s not the impression I got from the story. 

  • DL Cade

    Thanks for pointing that out Mark, we really appreciate it. The mistake has been fixed :)

  • Gcameron

    It is very sad that someone feels they missed that “special”pic, when it relates to the harming of human beings and the threat of death, but these guys put they’re own lives on the line to “capture” moments of reality that you and I can see after – who are we to pass judgement?  

    The photogs tried to capture the consequences of other folks’ decisions; those “folk’s” being those YOU and I voted into government.

    Despite the fact we may be uncomfortable that they photographed rather than “aided” victims of war – just think how powerful all such photographs are , without which you are really alienated in the very first place from war (and we all wish others would listen).  Without brave photogs, many injustices would never have been revealed to those who want to jump on their “high horses” and lobby their governments against war.

  • John Stock

    I wonder if this picture would get so much praise if it was taken today, or would it be considered indecent?

  • Joe

    Agreed. What annoys me are morons who take breaks from watching Jerry re-runs to demonstrate their complete inability to grasp the point of an article.

  • ennuipoet

     Except the photographers DID help the children, Nick Ut treated the girls wounds and then transported the burnt children to a hospital in Saigon.  He did his job, documenting the horrible stupidity of the war and then took care of the children moments afterwards.  The other photographers assisted in the triage and treatment while soldiers stood around doing nothing.  So, Adam, when you actually know the history of the moment, it spread a little light on what kind of place Viet Nam was, all of this was yours for the learning at the click of the link included in the article.

  • Happy_Tinfoil_Cat

     As I remember it, the photographer took the burned child to the hospital, saving her life. I would call that “aiding” her. So many people think that taking a photo of human tragedy is the same as a mocking laugh when the complete opposite is usually the truth.  This photo helped end a pointless war. The photographers themselves could just as well have been roasted. War photographers are often targeted by even our own military (USA). Nowadays, you have to be in the ‘pool’ or be a target. Taking photos of flag draped coffins was even criminalized. If you want to stay in the pool, you have to play by their rules and tow the political line.

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  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    who said the photographers didn’t help the children? …

  • Kathleen Grace

    You know, photographers are a different breed, their mission is to capture the story – good or bad.  This was a story that defined an era.  And while I do agree on the horror of it and the impact it had, everyone can look at times when they missed something very important.  For my part, I’m glad there was only the one photo, it was enough.

  • Dean W. Thompson

    I might be thinking of a different photo… But if I’m right, this “photo” is actually a still from a video.

  • GlossGreen

    No, it’s an actual photo. Click on the Kim Phuc link in the article and it explains the whole story, and what came after.

  • Dean W. Thompson

    I’m going to go crazy trying to remember what photo i’m thinking about…

  • jdm8

    You clearly didn’t, but most of the time I see people complain about photographers in a disaster/war zone, they suggest those people should be helping instead, as if taking a few snaps is mutually exclusive of taking time to help.

    That happens so often that it almost seems implied.

  • Antonio Carrasco

     Adam, your response leaves much to be desired. What if the other photographer had also been loading his camera and no one had gotten “the shot”?

    This image was one of the most influential photos of the past century and really burned into the collective consciousness of the people back home in the USA. This shot really put a human face on a horrible war that was going on in a faraway place and it helped to turn the American public against the war.

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    well you’re entirely wrong. I said photographers annoy the shit out of me because the guy was complaining he didn’t get “the shot”. I never said a word about photographers helping or not helping children. Don’t jump to conclusions.

  • 9inchnail

    But the photo was taken so why cry like a b*tch 40 years later that it wasn’t you who took that shot? What if both took a photo from different angles, would they be fighting over which one is better? Countless people died in that moment, others, like the girl, are scarred for life and that’s what this guy complians about? First world problem LVL over 9000.

  • 9inchnail

     It would be considered a fake and enemy propaganda by the people who dropped the Napalm. You wouldn’t even get to see it if you don’T frequent independent media sites.

  • 9inchnail

     I think there also is video footage of that same scene from a similar angle. I might be wrong but now that you mention it, I thought I’d seen this some time ago.

  • Corin Chiriac

    Think again. If this photography would have been lost, or no photographers, tv crews or journalists would not be there to document the horrors of the war, people back home wouldn’t have any idea about the horrors of it. Who knows, maybe because of this picture, and the outcry it generated many children in conflict zones are now alive. You could not change the horrors of war. They happen. If this picture would not have been taken, you would still have a napalm burn child. On a more personal side, you can’t do this job if you don’t get detached by what happens in front of you lens. Else, you’ll get to the funny house. War photographers are like doctors: maybe they look cold hearted, but they sure do a lot of good. If you would hear a surgeon talling about that big tumor that he would of liked to cut himself, you would of had the same reaction. But guess what: this is probably a sign of that man being a real professional. And let me tell you this: if that tumor would be on your body, you would  probably prefer the cold blooded professional as a surgeon. If the war is the cancer of humanity, David and Nick are the Forward Operating Team. They are the field doctors. Are they necessary? yes they are; But most of us can’t do this, and this is probably why we shouldn’t judge them.  

  • Tzctplus -

    You are embarrassing yourself: a photographer is bound to talk about his profession, the iconic nature of this particular picture merits that other photographers talk about the general situation while the picture was taken.

    What exactly is wrong with that? If you are annoyed by nothing it is your problem, seek help, it is not healthy.

  • Tzctplus -

     He is not crying or anything, he is just remembering about a pivotal point of his career and about a problem faced by any photographer.

    That some of you want to read more into it what there is says more about you than about him.

  • Dean W. Thompson

    Well I just had a conversation with one of my teachers and this is the “photo”. I don’t have any links for it, but this is the one I was thinking about. Apparently it’s a video still.

  • GlossGreen

    Read this: There was a video taken at the same time, but this is a photo. Your teacher is wrong. This photo was cropped from a larger image, not a video.

  • dorn

    He is not giving a report on the conditions that day… and the article is titled in a way that makes it sound as though he crying about missing the shot.
    There are many many photographer who did not get a shot that will go down in history. Shall we talk to all of them about what was going on and why they missed it?

    I think that it is embarrassing as a photographer to see an “I was there to” statement.

  • John Kantor

    War Correspondents are only interested in self-aggrandizement. They are parasites that feed on suffering and death.

  • Judith

    No; photojournalists are the people willing to stand in ponds of blood and risk getting killed so that “civilian control of the military” can involve informed voters; if covering battles, they take people like you to the world’s hottest battle zones – from Baghdad to Boston – with no risk to you beyond vomiting when you see the realities of war.