Hal Buell, who led The Associated Press’ (AP) photo operations and made the pivotal decision to run Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl, has died.
According to AP News, Buell died on Monday in Sunnyvale, California after battling pneumonia. He passed away with his daughter Barbara at his side.
Buell led AP’s photo operations between the late 1960s to the 1990s — from the darkroom era into the age of digital photography.
Over his four-decade career with the news organization, Buell worked in 33 countries, with legendary AP photographers including Eddie Adams, Horst Faas, and Nick Ut.
As an executive news photo editor for AP, Buell supervised a staff that were awarded 12 Pulitzer Prizes and produced some of the significant images of the Vietnam War.
A Decision That Defined War Photography
AP News reports that Buell made the pivotal decision in 1972 to run Ut’s defining image Napalm Girl (also known as The Terror of War).
Ut’s photograph captured a naked young girl called Kim Phuc fleeing her burning village with other children after napalm was dropped on it by South Vietnamese Air Force aircraft.
The publication of the photograph was delayed due to the AP bureau’s debate about sending a naked girl’s photograph over the wire.
According to The Digital Journalist, an editor at the AP rejected Ut’s photo because it showed frontal nudity. Pictures of nudes of all ages and sexes, and especially frontal views were prohibited at the company at the time.
However, Buell argued otherwise and said that the news value of Ut’s photograph overrode any reservations about nudity
“We didn’t have any objection to the picture because it was not prurient. Yes, nudity but not prurient in any sense of the word,” Buell said in a 2016 interview.
“It was the horror of war. It was innocence caught in the crossfire, and it went right out, and of course, it became a lasting icon of that war, of any war, of all wars.”
The image of Kim Phuc became one of the most haunting images of the Vietnam War and came to define for many all that was misguided about the war.
Ut told AP News that without Buell’s support, the Pulitzer-winning photo of Napalm Girl might never have become a symbol of the war that it is today.
“He thought it was powerful, and he wanted to get it out right away,” Ut says of Buell, whom he called a mentor and a great friend.
“Hal was the best boss I ever had. He was very supportive of me.”
Image credits: Photo by Nick Ut / Associated Press