Of the thousands of photographs he has taken in his life, Nick Ut, otherwise known as Hyung Cong Ut, said it is the picture of a naked, injured fear-stricken nine-year-old girl running along the highway in the summer of 1972 in Vietnam that resonates with him the most.
“I heard her cry, ‘Help me, help me! I need water!’” Ut said of the girl, Kim Phuc, during a talk given at the University of Hong Kong on September 23.
“I saw that 75 percent of her skin had come off.”
Soon after he shot that picture, Ut directed efforts to treat Kim’s wounds with water before taking her to a hospital.
The picture, which earned him the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, proved to be one of the most important pieces of war crime evidence documented.
Ut shared the story behind his iconic photograph of Napalm Girl and snippets of his career spanning 45 years as an Associated Press (AP) photographer, from taking gruesome war pictures to snapping the glitteratti of Hollywood.
Ut’s long-time friend and former Associated Press war correspondent, Peter Arnett, moderated the session.
“There had been other news photographers that day who had taken so many pictures that they used up all the film in their cameras and had to reload. Ut had four cameras — he always kept one in reserve — so he used it (to shoot Kim running),” Arnett said.
America’s mainstream media, at that time, decided against publishing the picture because of its nudity. Fortunately, (some) editors allowed the picture to be published “as an example of brutality, of war, a necessary document to show at what point the war had reached where whole communities were destroyed and children attacked like that,” Arnett said.
At the age of 14, Ut joined the AP to “continue doing his brother’s job.” His older brother, Huynh Thanh My, had been an AP photographer before he died in the battlefield of Vietnam’s civil war.
When asked why he stayed for years to cover the Vietnam War, Ut said, “Combat photography is very dangerous. I was shot three times. I spent a week in hospital but I wanted to get out to shoot again. I love my job. I love my assignments for AP.”
Although a seasoned war photojournalist, Ut’s philosophy is simple. “I had a lot of nightmares all the time after the war was over … but you have to remain neutral. I’m not angry about the war.”
From the blood-soaked paddies to the red carpet, his current clientele includes international celebrities, and even Barack Obama.
“Hollywood was not easy for me but because I took the napalm picture, everyone knew me. I’m a short guy too, so people recognise me. I’m lucky that way.”
“In Vietnam, I walked by myself,” he continued “But in Hollywood, you walk with hundreds of photographers. You see cell phones, video cameras, everyone pushing together.”
Answering further questions from the audience, Ut said that he was unsure if he would be welcomed back into the new Vietnam, but was relieved that the Vietnamese people were very receptive towards him.
His advice to budding photojournalists?
“Open your eyes and make sure you don’t shoot too much. If you shoot too much, the picture may not mean anything. Learn from magazines and newspapers on your own; observe different types of pictures. I never went to photography school in my life. After the war, AP sent me to America and I had to shoot baseball. I didn’t understand the game. Then I looked at magazines to see what sort of pictures were taken of the subject and you learn that way.”
The event was part of the JMSC’s Photojournalism @ HKU year-long series which includes lectures, public courses and an exhibition of works by JMSC students at the Hong Kong Fringe Club.