It is an image that no one who has ever seen will forget. A young girl, naked and screaming, runs straight at the photographer. He presses the shutter button – and in a tiny moment captures the great horror of the Vietnam War on film. “The Terror of War” – the title of the recording – is still five decades after June 8, 1972 one of the most important and authentic depictions of violence and atrocities to which the civilian population is exposed in a war.
“What is more fragile than a small, naked nine-year-old girl in the middle of a completely absurd context – namely on the street surrounded by military personnel,” explains the expert in the history of photography, Michael Ebert, the pull of the photo. “When children become victims, it always affects us very, very strongly.”
The torments of the girl Thi Kim Phúc in the middle of the scene are the central element in the composition of the picture. Her cousin in the foreground, the other children are also part of the family. In the background: soldiers and thick clouds of smoke. The outstretched arms make Christian viewers think of Jesus’ death on the cross. Another factor that makes this picture so touching in its iconic effect is the happy ending, according to Ebert. Kim Phuc survives.
When the South Vietnamese army shelled the village of Trang Bang on June 8, 1972, about 40 kilometers north-west of what was then Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City), the withdrawal of its allied US troops from the country was already in full swing. The war is becoming more and more of a Vietnamese war. In the village of Trang Bang, the South Vietnamese air force suspects Vietcong. A mistake, villagers and their own soldiers are being bombarded with napalm. Photographer Nick Ut is on site. The 21-year-old Vietnamese works for the US news agency Associated Press (AP). “I saw an airplane drop four napalm bombs,” he later wrote in the US magazine “Newsweek”. People, some of whom are holding dead children in their arms, run towards him. Including Kim Phúc. “I wondered why she wasn’t wearing any clothes. But as I walked closer to her and took pictures, I could see how badly burned she was.” It takes a maximum of 15 seconds for the photographer and his fellow media outlets to help the children. Ut himself takes the girl and other wounded people to a hospital. “He saved her life with this action,” says Ebert, who has been dealing intensively with the photo and its protagonists for years. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary he is curating an exhibition in Hilden. “I evaluated all the recordings that were made,” says the scientist. Several photographers were in Trang Bang. “Only Nick took the picture of the pictures.”
Ut’s photo actually shows a larger section of the scene: on the right edge of the picture you can see more soldiers and a photographer. The original 35mm format is cropped to fit the newspaper format in the AP office in Saigon: Kim Phúc moves to the middle – and gives the recording the energy that has been praised to this day Headquarters radioed to New York. Despite violating the rule of not actually showing fully nude people, the shot goes on AP’s global service. Slightly retouched because there was a fear that the shadows on the girl’s body could be interpreted as pubic hair. Which provokes the question: Would such a motif be printed worldwide today, i.e. in the days of the Ukraine war, or would press ethics prevent it? After all, the motif shows a person naked and bare, his intimacy is negated.
The picture is already printed in the evening, and the next day it is on the front page of the New York Times. The reactions come quickly. US President Richard Nixon calls the photo a fake, and thousands of Americans demonstrate again for an end to the war. The picture is distributed worldwide. Kim Phúc later says that this was a key factor in the United States and North Vietnam agreeing on a ceasefire in January 1973. It later won “Press Photo of the Year” and Ut received the Pulitzer Prize. In early 2021, US President Donald Trump will award him the National Medal of Arts. Kim Phúc suffered third-degree burns on half of her body. She has to stay in the hospital for 14 months. Today, the 59-year-old works as a peace ambassador for the United Nations, among others. She has lived in Canada since the early 1990s, currently in Toronto.
“This picture keeps reminding me that I lost my childhood,” she said during an audience with her good friend Ut with Pope Francis. “I am no longer a victim of war. I am a mother, a grandmother and a survivor calling for peace.”