Should a Photographer in Conflict Zones Help? The True Story of the Napalm Girl Image

The photo of a naked girl fleeing from a napalm cloud is one of the classic symbols of the Vietnam War. A historian analyses the image-related connotations and criticizes the media. Should a photographer — or any journalist for that — help victims of atrocities while trying to perform his or her duty of reporting? Not an easy question. By helping, an image that might become iconic to document atrocities may get “lost.” And ever wondered how removed from reality unedited images can be? Such is the case with the “napalm girl.”

War is always brutal — for soldiers and civilians alike. Innocent bystanders are always victims of war, in modern day conflicts there are often more “collateral victims” than uniformed dead. In Third World struggles in former colonies, the indigenous population was always particularly hard hit. This holds true for the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1975 in which something like three times more civilians died than soldiers on both sides.

The Icon: On 8 June 1972, the village of Trang Bang near Saigon was hit by an air strike. Kim Phúc, nine years old at the time, was photographed fleeing naked and burned. This image of her went around the world and was promptly adopted as an anti-war symbol. | AP
The Icon: On 8 June 1972, the village of Trang Bang near Saigon was hit by an air strike. Kim Phúc, nine years old at the time, was photographed fleeing naked and burned. This image of her went around the world and was promptly adopted as an anti-war symbol. | AP

Coincidentally, at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has called on two very different Vietnam veterans, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, to join his new cabinet, a startling documentary has been released which maintains that the scope of war crimes against the Vietnamese people was much greater than had been previously acknowledged. It is, however, the iconic images rather than books on the subject that continue to have more impact on public consciousness around the world.

The atrocities of South Vietnamese and American forces have been officially recognized while the crimes of the communist North Vietnamese are seldom mentioned. Even more interesting than this imbalance is the fact that the two most important visual icons in the collective memory of the Vietnam War should be viewed in a much more differentiated manner.

An Execution on Camera

The execution of a Viet Cong fighter by the South Vietnamese Police Chief of Saigon on February 1, 1968, during the Tet Offensive of the Communist guerrillas, is recognized as the embodiment of inhumanity. But there are grounds for doubt, as the young man shot in the head had allegedly cruelly slaughtered civilians earlier on — a fact that can not be shown in the famous photograph.

The situation in the second iconic image is completely different. It was taken on June 8, 1972, and shows a naked, screaming girl, arms spread out helplessly, on the road to Trang Bang. She was nine year old Kim Phúc and was without a doubt an innocent victim: liquid fuel from a bomb sheath had burned large parts of her back.

The Original: The photo shot by photographer Nick Út shows a slightly different perspective. His colleague calmly changes a roll of film as Kim Phúc runs passed him. The napalm clouds in the back look less threatening. | AP
The Original: The photo shot by photographer Nick Út shows a slightly different perspective. His colleague calmly changes a roll of film as Kim Phúc runs passed him. The napalm clouds in the back look less threatening. | AP

The Vietnamese photographer, Nick Út, took the famous shot that was awarded “World Press Photo” in 1972 and a year later won the Pulitzer Prize. His picture, now known as the “Napalm Girl,” has been published in numerous magazines and books and screened in hundreds of TV documentaries. It has been used in propaganda posters and artworks, other photographers have recreated or distorted the original.

“Visual History” Expert

The whole history of this world famous photo is now explained by Gerhard Paul, history professor at the University of Flensburg and a leading expert on “Visual History.” In his new book BilderMACHT (power of images) he has put together 17 detailed studies of various famous photo images that have influenced our collective consciousness. These include photos of Adolf Eichmann before court in Jerusalem 1961 in a glass box, as well as an aestheticized portrait of Mao Tse-tung and TV images of the attack on New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Another photo showing how indifferent the war reporters seemed. They were the only Americans on location. One must assume they've seen so much misery already that the suffering kids were only more of the same. | AP
Another photo showing how indifferent the war reporters seemed. They were the only Americans on location. One must assume they’ve seen so much misery already that the suffering kids were only more of the same. | AP
The article on the “napalm girl” is of particular interest, however. Paul meticulously reconstructs the circumstances under which the image was created, without minimizing the horrors of war or understating Kim Phúc’s suffering, and how the situation developed after the famous shot.

The picture was taken in the village of Trang Bang, north west of Saigon, about a mile away from the front line. In early June 1972, the United States had started to “vietnamize” the war in Vietnam, i.e. to withdraw their own forces and hand over operations to South Vietnamese combat troops. There were therefore no U.S. soldiers fighting there, just the 25 Vietnamese divisions. The Americans on the famous image were mainly war correspondents and photographers who had driven down that morning anticipating impressive combat action — among them Nick Út.

It Was Even Friendly Fire!

Around noon the local South Vietnamese commander asked for an air strike in support of the soldiers in ground combat. At least five incendiary bombs hit their own positions around Trang Bang. The few houses were also targeted although there were no indications of resistance.

Numerous South Vietnamese soldiers were also injured by “friendly fire” in this misguided attack. Peter Arnett, the war reporter (then Associated Press, later CNN) and Fox Butterfield (“New York Times”) later recalled that, apart from the correspondents, there were no foreigners at the area.

Kim Phúk suffered burns on her whole body. Over the course of 14 months she needed 17 skin transplantations. | AP
Kim Phúk suffered burns on her whole body. Over the course of 14 months she needed 17 skin transplantations. | AP
The consequences of the incorrectly targeted attack were dramatic: no sooner had the smoke dissolved, when wounded and terrified civilians stumbled towards the photojournalist, Nick Út from the village. Among them was Kim Phúc, her siblings and her grandmother, who was holding a dying child in her arms.

What happened next was just as shocking — and reflects negatively on correspondents on the spot: they continued doing their jobs photographing, filming and gathering impressions for newpaper articles as if nothing happened. Nick Út also initially took numerous shots with his Leica; only after that he and his colleagues took care of the injured children. This was never mentioned in retrospect.

Correspondents and War

Gerhard Paul states, “Contrary to what Nick Út later maintained, these particular shots do not mirror the war itself, but rather the behavior of the media towards war victims.” The historian carefully reconstructs how the famous picture was modified, it was in fact cropped — and why subsequent images were sorted out.

Neither the image shot slightly later by Vietnamese photographer Hoang Van Danh of Kim Phúc no longer screaming in pain became famous nor a picture showing the correspondents at work. Both images would probably have reduced the impact of “Napalm Girl.”

The original shot was also enhanced by significant trimming: the napalm smoke clouds on the horizon appear threatening, similarly the men with helmets in the background — not soldiers, but correspondents. But above all, the picture margin on the right showing TIME Magazine reporter, David Burnett, calmly changing the film in his movie camera while Kim Phúc ran screaming past him, was cropped.

Career of an Icon

The very next day newspapers in the U.S. and around the world printed the trimmed and slightly retouched version of Út’s photo. Thus began the career of this image, which became a campaign poster in the impending election for the U.S. presidency — and soon after the subject of somewhat tasteless artistic adaptations.

Gerhard Paul evaluates street art artist Bansky’s version of “Can’t Beat the Feeling”, in which the screaming girl is mounted between Mickey Mouse and McDonald’s advertising mascot: “Kim Phúc, a global symbol, is placed coequally between two central advertising icons of the century. She is thus ostensibly degraded to the status of an advertising cliché.”

The napalm girl image has been used again and again in many variations: on a post in the U.S. presidential election campaign 1972... | Verlag Wallstein
The napalm girl image has been used again and again in many variations: on a post in the U.S. presidential election campaign 1972… | Verlag Wallstein
... or hand in hand with U.S. consumerism icons Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. | Verlag Wallstein
… or hand in hand with U.S. consumerism icons Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. | Verlag Wallstein

The meticulous analyses in Paul’s new book illustrate why we should handle image icons circumspectly. He also demonstrates how far removed from reality unedited images can be, this applies even more so to retouched and edited images. In today’s image-overloaded world, the precision and accuracy of his research affect us beneficially.

(Translated from Die ganze Story um das Foto vom Napalm Mädchen by Sven Felix Kellerhoff, published in Die Welt on March 7, 2013.)



  • The True story of the Napalm Girl really misses the mark. Stating what happened reflects negatively on correspondents shows that the author has no knowledge of the events of that photograph. Photographic correspondents were there to document the on going war. They were not there to try to end the war or to provide medical assistance to all the injured. The Napalm Girl dramatically showed the fear and pain the children of Vietnam had experienced as causalities of the war. Nick Ut received the Pulitzer Peace Prize and other awards for that photo. The correspondents were actually taking photos of an aircraft booming raid when the children came running towards them. It was image number 7 on Nick Ut’s Leica. David Burnett was changing the film in his trusty Leica and not a movie camera when the children approached. Nick loaded Kim Phuc and several other children into his car and took them to an American Hospital in Saigon. Kim would have probably succumbed to death from the burns. This last summer Nick Ut was given a Leica Hall of Fame award. He was accompanied by Kim Phuc and David Burnett at the awards ceremony in Berlin.

    • The article only shows the real misery of war. There are even humanitarian handbooks to adhere to in the case of armed conflict — who cares?

      To ask a working war photographer or journalist to help an injured person in an armed conflict is a contradiction in itself. So I fully agree with you on this point, Tom.

      Still, the article raises some important questions that cannot be ignored. Receiving an award doesn’t mean to be above criticism.