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 sat down with Ut about his life, career, and his most famous photo that is instantly recognized around the world.
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.
So you called the AP asking for the job?
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, Rolleiflex, 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.
So you didn’t do any photography at all before you got the AP job?
No. I learned after.
What was the first camera that you shot with?
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.
Do you remember what was happening leading up to your famous photo of Kim Phuc?
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.
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 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 telling 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 development 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 he 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.
It seems like most people call the photo “Napalm Girl”. Is that what you call it?
I call the photo “Terrible.”
Do you have a specific name for the photo?
“Terrible War.” A lot of people say “Napalm Girl” or “Napalm Photo”, but when I use the photo I say, “Terrible War.”
Can you tell us about how you learned that you had won the Pulitzer Prize?
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.
I read that you were injured three times during the Vietnam War. Can you tell us about what injuries you sustained?
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.
How did your brother pass away?
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.
At the Leica event, I heard Kim Phuc call you “Uncle”. How close are the two of you now?
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.
What advice do you have for people who want to do photojournalism?
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, 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.
You can follow along with Ut’s work on his Instagram account, @utnicky.
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)