Nick Ut stretches his cheek with his fingers with a child-like innocence to ‘prove’ that he has wrinkles on his face. ‘I am an old man, look at this,” he says, chuckling. However, if one were to look closely at his face, you would ask, ‘Where are the wrinkles?’ But he steadfastly maintains that he is an old man and points out he is 68.
You speak to him, ask him about anything – the war zones he has travelled to, the bombs that exploded right in front of his eyes, the dead bodies –of the ordinary people, his colleagues, the soldiers…, he seems to take everything in his stride with aplomb and a smile that is hard to miss.
An avid traveller too, the man famous the world over as the ‘Napalm Girl’ photographer, was at his charming best during his first visit to India. He is the main attraction at the ongoing International Press Photo Fest being organised by the Media Academy in Thiruvananthapuram. Sitting at a hotel on the shores of the lovely Kovalam beach in Kerala’s capital, he spoke to TNM about the iconic photograph and his love for the trade.
At 68, his day still begins with the camera and his life is all about taking pictures. Huynh Cong - known professionally as Nick Ut, is widely celebrated as the ‘Napalm Girl’ photographer, for taking the iconic image of the 9-year-girl running naked after an aerial napalm bombing in Vietnam in 1972. He says that the child in the picture, Kim Phuc - who is now 55, is like his daughter and they have become family.
“We call up each other quite often and are planning to go to Amsterdam together in April. The skin on her hand and her back still bears the scars of the bombing even after so many years, nothing much can be done about. We had met at Georgia recently where I had asked her to come for the Amsterdam trip.”
Elaborating on the iconic picture, which eventually caused the Vietnam war to end in 1973, he says, “I was taking pictures at Trang Bang 25 miles northwest of Saigon. It was a residential area and I saw people running. I saw a lot of people running, including women who were wiping their tears. And then, I saw her, she was screaming… I wondered why she was naked, then I realised napalm had fallen on her. I immediately poured water on her body, her hands and her back.”
Nick Ut took her in his vehicle to the hospital which was a bit far. “On reaching the hospital, I screamed in the hope that someone would rush to treat her. A nurse soon arrived but said the hospital was not equipped to treat her and asked me to take her to another hospital. She kept on insisting and then, after I revealed my identity as a media person and showed her my identity card as an Associated Press (AP) photographer, she finally acquiesced.”
Nick Ut and the girl soon established a rapport and the long association started from there. Kim Phuc is now based in Canada. The photograph that remains as the defining moment of the Vietnam war, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and is part of history. The image had such an impact that in the same year, America’s involvement in the war ended. “American soldiers who were deployed in Vietnam came up and hugged me. They were relieved that the war finally ended. Who loves war, no one? People hate war. Even now when countries like Yemen, Libya and Iran are hit by tensions- war is back in a new form. I am sad over such things. People would come and ask me why don’t you go there, why don’t you take pictures, a moving picture can tell the story to the world and stop war. I say to them, I am old, let young photographers go there, there are so many master photographers around, I am not young anymore.”
Nick Ut continues, “I was not afraid, even when I was on the war field. I have seen people dying in front of me; my brother died in war, I was injured all over (points to his thighs and hands). We face death every day and when we work for agencies like AP, we need to shoot a lot of pictures of a single incident,” he says.
He is also sad that Vietnam, though it has developed economically, curbs the freedom of media. “In a few years, Vietnam will be as developed as Singapore or Hong Kong. Now it’s comparatively cheap to live there, it will become costlier in the coming years. But the government restraints on media freedom, it’s not like the days of old. Journalists are not free to do their work.”
Nict Ut began his love affair with the camera at a tender age and insists he is still learning. When he was a teenager at the age of 15, without having any background in photography, Nick Ut asked AP to give him a job. His brother, an AP photographer, was killed while working for an assignment by the Viet Cong in 1965. His brother’s job with AP was the only connect to go and ask for a job.
“I see the photo as a story, first I would think what the story is, for me photographs are not mere objects. I love those photographs which have humans in them. Whenever I clicked humans, the thought in my mind was how to help them. The sight of the homeless, the sight of the stranded… If my photos can help them I am happy.”
The man who documented history through his lens retired from AP after 51 long years, in March 2017. But, he still freelances for AP.
“It’s not like the old times? I can shoot and send on my computer. The difference is that one man is doing two jobs now. A photographer needs to shoot video as well, a reporter needs to take photos; everything is done so quickly, people work with two hands. If I am asked to shoot a video, I would say that is not my job. Now I don’t work for money, I don’t need money. Even if I accept payment I would donate it for the poor, there are so many around,” he says candidly.
Nick Ut lives in Los Angeles with his family and is busy traveling the world, shooting pictures and conducting exhibitions - the last one was in Paris. “See this, this is an airplane passing through the moon,” he shows a picture shot by him. “This I have taken a few years back, and recently I shot the full moon,” he adds. From Thiruvananthapuram, he is traveling to other districts like Kollam and Kozhikode. In May, he will travel to New Delhi. “I am planning my next show with pictures shot from India,” Nick Ut signs off.
Pics: Sreekesh Raveendran Nair