Archive for Friday, January 26, 2001

Looking back at ‘Girl in the Picture’

Exhibit traces life of Vietnamese girl caught in napalm 28 years ago

January 26, 2001

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— One photograph shows napalm bombs tumbling from a Skyraider military plane as it dips low over a village in Vietnam. The next captures the fierce splash of explosives, the twin towers of a temple still visible above the inferno.

Then comes one of the starkest images from war in the 20th century: Out of the billowing smoke, a 9-year-old girl, blistered and screaming, runs naked down the road and into the lens of history.

South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including
9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near
Trang Bang, Vietnam, after an aerial napalm attack on June 8, 1972.
A Vietnamese Air Force bomber accidentally dropped its flaming
napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. The terrified girl
had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing.

South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam, after an aerial napalm attack on June 8, 1972. A Vietnamese Air Force bomber accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. The terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing.

For the first time, a museum display has been assembled that tells the story of Phan Thi Kim Phuc in photographs from the horrifying sequence of that day in 1972 and her painful recovery through her friendship with Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut, the Associated Press photographer who not only made her famous but helped save her life.

The 26-photo exhibit, titled "The Girl in the Picture," opened Saturday and runs until June 3 at the George Eastman House, the world's oldest museum of photography.

It accompanies an array of pictures drawn from "Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina," a book by former combat photojournalists Horst Faas and Tim Page. One of the 135 photographers memorialized in "Requiem" is Huynh Thanh My, Ut's older brother.

The adjacent exhibits provide "a very good counterbalance," said the museum's senior scholar, Marianne Fulton. "If you don't think pictures make a difference, look at what this powerful image of Kim Phuc did to her life and Nick Ut's life. In this case, fortunately, we have a living photographer."

Kim Phuc, now 37 and living in Canada, remembered June 8, 1972, like it was yesterday.

"I was hiding in the temple, I saw the airplane, I saw the bombs fall and suddenly I saw the fire around me, everywhere," she said.

"My clothes were burned off by fire but my feet weren't burned. It means I can run. If my feet were burned, I should die over there and who would know? I couldn't run out and Nick Ut cannot take the picture. And that is a miracle.

"He not only take the picture and do his job but he did extra he rushed me to the nearest hospital. I have no more words to say, just that I'm so grateful."

Phan Thi Kim Phuc and her family now make their home in Toronto. AP
Photographer Nick Ut, who made this photo, also shot a famous
picture of Kim Phuc running screaming up a road after the bombs
struck.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc and her family now make their home in Toronto. AP Photographer Nick Ut, who made this photo, also shot a famous picture of Kim Phuc running screaming up a road after the bombs struck.

The black-and-white shot of Kim Phuc, emblazoned across front pages, earned Ut a Pulitzer Prize and helped sway public opinion against the Vietnam War.

In Vietnam, the brutally scarred girl was used as a propaganda tool by the Communist victors. After 10 bleak years during which she said, "I just wanted to die," Kim Phuc turned to God and "learned to forgive all the people who caused my suffering."

Given permission to study pharmacology in Cuba in 1986, she defected to the West with her husband during an airport stopover in Canada six years later. They have two sons, ages 6 and 3. Ut, an AP photographer based in Los Angeles, often visits her in Toronto, where she runs a foundation for children damaged by war and works as a UNESCO ambassador.

Three photos in the exhibit depict their first reunion in Havana in 1989; another shows them being greeted by Queen Elizabeth II at London's Science Museum last June.

They plan to tour the exhibit here along with Page and Faas, a senior AP photo editor in London who was the agency's Saigon photo editor from 1963 to 1972 and transmitted the "napalm girl" photo.

The night before the bombing, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops had invaded the village of Trang Bang, 25 miles northwest of Saigon, and South Vietnamese soldiers spent all morning trying to drive them out. The South Vietnamese Air Force strikes occurred after enemy troops had left. Two children were killed and 20 other people were injured.

Fleeing ahead of Kim Phuc in the picture is her older brother, Tam, his mouth twisted in agony. He lost an eye but survived and still lives in Trang Bang. He dreams of someday traveling to the United States, his sister said.

Kim Phuc regarded the wrenching photograph as a "powerful gift" with which to promote peace.

"In the picture, I am crying from pain," she said. "Now, I cry for peace. I don't want to see any more children suffer."

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