Interview with Nick Ut, the Photojournalist Who Shot the Iconic “Napalm Girl” Photo

Nick Ut is the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photojournalist who shot the iconic Vietnam War photo that most people refer to as “Napalm Girl”.

PetaPixel: Can you tell me a little about what your childhood was like?

Nick Ut: I had a big family in Vietnam. My father was a farmer. My mother was busy — there were ten brothers and one sister. Big family, but some of them died in the war. My brother was an AP photographer. He worked as a CBS cameraman in 1960. In 1964, he joined the AP, and worked there for almost two years. He was killed in 1965 doing an AP assignment.

After my brother died, I asked the AP to give me a job. They told me I was too young. I wasn’t even 16 at the time. I kept calling them to tell them that I needed a job. Finally in 1966, they gave me a job.

PP: So you called the AP asking for the job?

NU: Yeah, my brother’s boss, because he knew my brother very well. They didn’t want to hire me because he died. Then one day I called them saying, “Hey, I want to study something, and I love the job.” Then they told me to come in.

Then I started studying darkroom work at the AP darkroom in Saigon. I loved the darkroom, because in Vietnam, there wasn’t any place to study photography. Remember, in 1966, Vietnam was a very poor country. No cameras. Nothing.

After my brother died, they had his Leica, Rolliflex, and Nikon cameras. I picked up the cameras and learned a lot. In the AP darkroom, they had tons of cameras. Every day I played with the cameras with the other AP photographers. Eddie Adams, the famous photographer who photographed the Viet Cong, worked for AP Saigon. A lot of famous photographers worked there.

Even though they were busy, I learned a lot from them. Every day, I took my camera, went out, and took pictures of everything. Then I would come back, develop the film, look through my pictures, and say, “Oh, it looks good.”

One day, there were Buddhist monks burning themselves in Saigon. My boss said, “Nicky, do you want to go take a picture?” I thought, “I’m not a photographer,” but he said, “Go shoot something!” So I shot some pictures. The next day, my picture was on the front page. That’s what boosted me into a photographer.

I spent over three months learning in that darkroom. In 1968, the Viet Cong attacked the American embassy in Saigon. I went out to take pictures. The AP told me, “you’re a good photographer.” That’s how I became a combat photographer in 1968.

PP: So you didn’t do any photography at all before you got the AP job?

NU: No. I learned after.

PP: What was the first camera that you shot with?

NU: I used the Nikon M and the Leica M2. The AP then gave me the M2, M3, and two Nikon Fs, so I carried four cameras whenever I went on an assignment.

Then I started traveling and covered Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos… I would travel by motorcycle and go to assignments every day. War every day. It was crazy. I did this until 1975 and the fall of Saigon.

Before that happened, the AP told me, “You need to transfer to Japan, but before you do that, you first have to become a refugee.” From Vietnam, I flew to the Philippines, and then to California. Camp Pendleton.

I stayed there almost for three weeks before the AP bureau came and told me, “Nicky, let’s get you out of here. Come to LA. We need to fill out all the paperwork before you transfer to Japan.”

I spent almost two weeks in LA while my papers were being processed.

In 1975, I went to Toyko, and spent two years as an AP Toyko photographer. I wasn’t covering war, but there were a lot of soldiers there. After two years, I asked the AP to transfer me to Los Angeles. At that time, they had too many photographers there, so they didn’t want me transferring in. They suggested sending me to Hawaii or Washington DC instead… for politics. I said, “DC is too cold, I don’t want to go there, and in Hawaii, there’re no assignments for me.” So they sent me to LA.

I’ve spent over thirty years in LA now, from the 1970s until today. I spend a lot of time every day working on all kinds of assignments: politics, sports, fires, prison, etc… All kinds of assignments.

PP: Do you remember what was happening leading up to your famous photo of Kim Phuc?

NU: A friend of mine called saying that there was very heavy fighting in the village. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had locked down Highway One for three or four days for the fighting. The first day I didn’t go. The second day, I went very early in the morning, like at six or seven AM.

When I got there, I parked my car. There was a lot of smoke and a lot of noise. Boom boom boom. All the time.

Then I traveled with South Vietnamese soldiers for about two miles. I took a lot of pictures of heavy fighting, with people dying everywhere.

When I went back to the highway, David Burnett and a lot of members of the media were there. I already had a lot of pictures, so I didn’t want to take too long. At around noontime, I saw a South Vietnamese soldier with a guide bomb. He threw it, and yellow smoke started rising into the air.

Soon there was the noise of an airplane coming. The first plane dove and dropped two bombs. The second one, an A-1 Skyraider, poured napalm. We thought, “Wow, the bomb was very close,” but we didn’t think there were any people still there.

I had a long lens, so I shot pictures of the bombs coming down, and the bomb explosions. I thought to myself, “Good pictures. Maybe no one will get pictures because everyone else left already.”

I looked at the smoke, and then I saw children running. Then a cat. Then another family running. Then I saw Kim Phuc’s grandmother running with a one-year-old baby in her arms. She was an old lady, and was shouting, “Help me, help me, help my grandson.”

When she was about 50 yards away, she stopped, and all the photographers and TV cameras started taking pictures of the baby. The boy, that one-year-old baby, died in her arms right away.

I remember looking through my Leica at the boy when he died. As I was shooting, I saw in the corner of the viewfinder a girl running with her arms stretched out to the sides. I thought, “Oh my God,” and began running at her and shot all of my pictures.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Napalm Girl” photo. Photo by Nick Ut/Associated Press

While I was taking pictures, I noticed a photographer trying to rewind his film. He had no frames left in his camera. It was David Burnett, with an old Leica — a very old model. 1945, or something like that. It was very difficult to put film into it. When Kim came running, he tried to take a picture, but had no film, so he started rewinding. After he put a new roll in, he had a picture of Kim by herself, and a picture of her back, but not one of the whole crowd running.

David then called the New York Times and Time Magazine right away, saying, “Nick Ut had a better picture. We need to call the AP right away.” They saw the picture from AP Saigon.

After I had taken a picture of Kim, I thought, “Oh my God.” The girl was running all naked, and when she passed me, I saw her left arm burned and her the skin peeling off her back. I immediately thought that she was going to die. She was very hot even after the bomb. She was screaming and screaming, and I thought, “Oh my God.” That’s when I stopped taking pictures of her.

I had water, so I put water on her body. I then put my four cameras down on Highway One, and began helping her. I borrowed a raincoat to cover her, and then started carrying her. Her uncle said, “Please help the kids and take them to the hospital.” I replied, “Yes, my car is right here.” I put all the kids in my car right away.

In the van with my driver, every time I looked at Kim, she was saying, “I’m dying, I’m dying.” She was telling her brother that. “Brother, I think I’m going to die.”

The traffic was very bad from the village to the hospital. I kept teling the driver, “Hurry! Hurry!”

When we finally got to the hospital, it was packed, with bodies, dying people, and the wounded everywhere. I ran inside to ask the nurses and the doctors to please help the kids, telling them about the napalm. After she saw them, she said, “Normal medicine cannot help. We cannot do anything.”

Then I showed her my media pass, and said, “If these kids die, you’ll be in trouble tomorrow.” Once they knew I was media, they carried Kim inside right away.

After I helped the kids, I needed to go back to Saigon right away. A lot of people were helping them, so I didn’t need to stay there. I got back into my car and hurried back to AP Saigon. Only one editor was there. I had eight rolls of film, and took them to the darkroom to develop. It was black and white, and took about ten minutes for everything.

After the film developing finished, we looked at my negatives. When my picture editor looked at one of the photos, he was shocked, and said, “Nicky, why did you take pictures of a naked girl?” He didn’t know. Then I explained that a napalm attack had hit a village. He was shocked when I said that, and selected one negative. He took it to the darkroom, and made a 5×7 print of it.

Then we went back to the light table, and waited for my boss to come and two other editors to come. The two editors came after lunch. When they saw the picture, they said, “We don’t think we can use the picture in the paper, because she’s too naked.”

When my boss came back and saw the pictures, he asked, “Who took the pictures?” They said, “Nick Ut.” He asked, “Why didn’t we send these pictures right away?” The editors replied, “You think these are pictures we can use? Because she’s naked.”

My boss looked at me, and asked, “What happened?” I said, “A napalm attack.” He ordered everyone to move, and looked through all the negatives again. He looked through twelve to fifteen pictures, and then yelled to the editors, “I want a caption on these pictures right away!”

One of the editors asked him again, “You think we can use the pictures?” My boss replied, “I don’t care. Write a caption. Move!” The editors sent the picture to New York to let them decide whether to use it or not. When New York saw the power in the photo, they said they wanted to use the picture right away.

The picture was immediately on the front page of every newspaper and on TVs. The newspaper called me and said, “Nicky, good job. Congratulations. Good picture.”

The next day, there were anti-war protests all over the world. Japan, London, Paris… Every day after that, people were protesting in Washington DC outside the White House. “Napalm Girl” was everywhere.

PP: It seems like most people call the photo “Napalm Girl”. Is that what you call it?

NU: I call the photo “Terrible.”

PP: Do you have a specific name for the photo?

NU: “Terrible War.” A lot of people say “Napalm Girl” or “Napalm Photo”, but when I use the photo I say, “Terrible War.”

PP: Can you tell us about how you learned that you had won the Pulitzer Prize?

NU: I was very young. I was only 19. After the picture, I went on another assignment right away, and then another one after that.

I won the World Press Photo first, and then prize after prize. Finally the AP called me and said, “Nicky, let’s talk about the Pulitzer Prize.” The next day, when I came to the AP office, all the AP staff was there with champagne and food ready, clapping for me and saying that I was number one. “Nicky, you won the Pulitzer Prize.”

For the next two weeks, the AP had a party almost every day for me and my picture. The AP also sent me to New York to receive my Pulitzer Prize.

Newspapers all over the world called me to interview me about the picture. It kept me crazy busy. After a while, I told them I couldn’t say any more, because I had to go on assignment.

PP: I read that you were injured three times during the Vietnam War. Can you tell us about what injuries you sustained?

NU: The first one was when I went back to Kim Phuc’s house to visit her. When I stepped near her house, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded and injured my leg. It hurt.

Another two were in Cambodia. I was very lucky. One almost killed me. A rocket exploded and injured my stomach.

When photographers went to cover the Vietnam War, everyone was getting shot. It was very dangerous. We had four or five photographers die among our AP staff in Saigon. My brother was killed too.

PP: How did your brother pass away?

NU: He was covering the Mekong Delta. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese attacked and killed hundreds of soldiers. When my brother landed with a helicopter that was sent to pick up the wounded, he stepped out of the helicopter and the helicopter was fired upon. They shot everyone and they shot the helicopter. That’s how he died.

PP: At the Leica event, I heard Kim Phuc call you “Uncle”. How close are the two of you now?

NU: She calls me “Uncle Nick.” After the picture, I went to see her all the time. She’s like my family. I call her once a week. She sometimes says, “He bothers me too much!” She’s just joking.

She tells me, “Uncle Nick, I love you.” We’re like family now. I call her all the time.

PP: What advice do you have for people who want to do photojournalism?

NU: People want danger. It’s not easy, it’s very dangerous.

First thing. A lot of people learn from my picture. People who want to help. When you see people get shot, or injured people, or people who need help, you don’t just watch and let people die.

Remember Kevin Carter and his picture of the bird waiting to eat the little child. That’s why he killed himself. For the napalmed girl, if I didn’t help her and she died, I would have killed myself too.

That’s the job. People need to learn.

Also, remember that forty years ago, combat photographers carried many heavy cameras, almost like a hundred rolls of film. Negative, black and white, slide film… all in a big bag.

Today, it’s easier. You just carry two cameras and a laptop. You can send pictures right away. So easy.

Editor’s note: Here’s the interesting backstory behind this interview: earlier today, I wrote a post stating that there might be a 1.5 day break from posting while I return to the States from Photokina, due to the fact that Internet at my hotel had been down for the past couple of days. When I returned to the hotel, I was delighted to learn that a technician had finally come and fixed the problem.

After dropping stuff off at my room on the third floor, I went down to the first floor to write a few more posts before calling it a day. When I got off the elevator, I was surprised to see Mr. Ut sitting in one of the chairs there. He was one of the featured guests at Leica’s special event on Monday — both he and Ms. Phuc attended — and I sat down next to him to chat. I recorded this interview that he graciously gave me before we parted ways, and then I spent the next few hours until now transcribing it instead of writing the blog posts that I had intended to author. I’d say it was worth it. Posting will resume in 1.5 days. Ta ta for now! (For real this time)

  • seventhseal

    This is one of the best articles I’ve seen on PetaPixel. Thanks.

  • sierrarobba

    BEST articles since this site is working!MORE interview!MORE MORE!
    Please do with Steve Sasson!

  • Sean McCann

    Thanks for this.

  • Debi Partney Adams

    One of the most amazing interviews I have ever read. As a photographer, I am so very touched by the line that nourished him, “You take good pictures”. After reading this, I want to tell him that his soul is much more beautiful. Profoundly poignant. Great article. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Mary Q. Nelson

    After reading this, I want to tell him that his soul is much more beautiful. Profoundly

  • nyoman dundun

    the most amazingly moving interview I’ve read on a photography bog! thank you for the great story michael!

  • Max

    Yeah Im sure if I was told to go and shoot photos of monks burning themselves alive or a screaming child being cooked by napalm that would ‘boost’ me as a photographer too. Sorry I can not respect this at all. I wonder how this guy shoots architecture.. or flowers…

  • Sean McCann

    Hey Max,
    No one cares what you respect.

  • Pavel Rubio

    excelente entrevista. Apasionante. Felicitaciones.

  • Carl-Frederic Salicath

    Thank you for doing this great interview. I think Ut provides a unique insight into the events of his and others lifes, and you can feel his persona seeping through the lines of text!
    Also nice to see Photokina press out something of more depth than the latest Hasselbling and wallet-cruncher!

  • Think360studio

    Great experience Nick. And I respect the feelings of Nick.

  • James

    Good interview. Thank you!
    Big respect to Nick! Got the picture AND helped the girl!

  • Realbert

    You have managed to set a new level of excellence for this blog Michael. Well done! While most of your readers are undoubtedly awaiting to hear about the gear announcements from this week, after reading your interview I am satisfied and touched. What a great conclusion to a busy week for you.

  • Dennis

    This is very good

  • Oisin Conolly

    A really interesting article. Thanks for a great read.

  • Sean Walsh

    It’s nice to finally read an article that won’t have the pixel-counters whinging about gear and specs. When they’re handing out the Pulitzer, they don’t ask what camera you used.

    I’m most interested by his comment about Kevin Carter. Very telling of Ut’s nature and responsibility – I’m here to do my job, but my job doesn’t excuse me from being involved and helping whatever way I can beyond documenting.

  • John Hagar

    a good article about one of the better photojournalists of the last 60 years. You should look at the article about his reunion with Phuc (napalm girl) a few years ago. His awards are all well-deserved.

  • John Hagar

    As far as how Nick shoots architecture or flowers – I am sure he knows well that pictures without people are basically uninteresting ;-O

  • Matt

    Really? You really missed the whole point, his photos helped spark the anti-war movement that lead to the end of the war. Ignoring the war and taking photos of flowers may make a person feel smug, but it does nothing to end a war. Additionally, he actually helped the injured girl, he didn’t just watch her suffer and most likely die. Something a lot of people would not have done.
    This interview gives me a lot of respect for him.

  • Robert Lemm

    Michael, thank you very much for sharing this interview and the vivid photos you took of Nick Ut. I had the chance to follow Nicks Ut’s and David Burnett’s presentation at the Leica hall on Sept. 18th. – some pictures and words (German, sorry) on my blog and flickr sites.

  • Veith Behrmann

    Very touching. Really good interview. I knew part of the story, but Mr. Ut’s straight and clear words give it a new value to me.

    Well done, Michael

  • Osnap ClickClick

    Absolutely far one of the best pieces I’ve read in a long time anywhere! Thank you

  • guest

    ok, then un-glue your lazy butt from your chair and do something with yourself. lucky for you, there’s lots of horror left in the world for you to still document :).

    but I assume you’re trolling, if you’re so focused on his expertise in photographing miscellaneous fauna.

  • Jake

    I actually read the beginning of the article where he said he only learned photography after taking the AP job and thought, “Take that, tech snobs!” But yeah, really good interview all around.

  • Mansgame

    Well done.

  • jasrockett

    You take all the time you need. Great web sight, fantastic story. Thank you, thank you, thank you

  • Edgardo Candela

    Extraordinary story, terrible consequencies of the war. The photo of such girl is a testimony of the war over innocents.

  • RG

    Thanks Michael

  • Benicio Murray

    I just came back from a trip to that part of the world. Powerful story and a great read.

  • Juan Carlos Ettedgui

    Moving. and inspiring. Mr. Ut is a great photographer. one who remind us that covering news is about informing those who can work in getting things better, and those who will celebrate once things are better. people needs to know.

  • Matt

    So, you are saying that we should not work against the horrors of the world and instead ignore them? Just trying to figure out what you are saying.

  • Crissa

    This interview inspired me, for sure. I’ve been feeling down about not being the best photographer and not having the best, gear. Nick just said “screw it” and did what he wanted to do, with proper action of course. ;)

    I’d rather have two posts a week that are of this quality than anything else. Variety is the spice of life though, so maybe it’s not fair to request that. At any rate, thank you so much for this Michael.

  • Meryl Goeke

    Dear Michael Zhang,

    I’m a student in Potomac, MD and was wondering if you could give me Nick Ut’s email or some other way to contact him. I’m doing an oral history project and want to ask him if he’s willing to do so. have been doing some research and discovered his fascinating story he captured through photography. Not only would I be interested to do an interview pertaining to the events that occurred in Vietnam, but also how photography has changed him and the world. I would truly be honored to do this huge project on him.

    Is there any way you can give me a way to contact him?

    Please let me know. It would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,

  • Cate

    yes sure, we could go fight an etire army and stop the war!!!!
    his picture did more to reveal the horrors of the war and make the public opinion against it that your stupid comment on a website

    nothing changes whether he was there or not. Those kids would have died anyway and the napalm attack would have occured anyway. He is not in a position to stop it or prevent it.
    But yet, he did something amazing by showing in a crude way what wars are about. That is surely more productive that being with your ass in a chair judging others in the internet