(This interview with photographer Nick Ut is a recap from Vietcetera’s Have A Sip podcast, hosted by host Thuy Minh and photographer Maika Elan.)
Leaving the AP news agency after 50 years of service in 2018, Nick Ut now works as a freelance photographer. He takes photos wherever he is, whenever he is able to, collaborating with Getty Images and other publications. He travels constantly between countries and continents, documenting wildlife or social events such as protests, immigration, and COVID-19.
Vietcetera had the opportunity to talk with the photographer to better understand the story behind the shocking press photo “Napalm Girl,” as well as his next plans and projects.
The photo “Napalm Girl” is so famous but may have overshadowed your other works. Have you ever been bothered by it?
I’m always proud of the photo “Napalm Girl.”
People might think that this photographer Nick Ut only took that photo of a naked girl running on the road near Trang Bang, where her house was located, which was bombed by napalm. Like it was so convenient for me but the truth is, I took a lot of photos that day. It just so happened that the AP (Associated Press) chose the most compelling ones and released them first.
How did you take the photo of “Napalm Girl?”
I and about 15 other photojournalists from broadcasting networks like BBC (UK) and NBC (USA) were present. Everyone thought that the most valuable and painful photo of that day was the photo of a grandmother holding her burned-out grandchild (that child was Kim Phuc, who appeared in the photo “Napalm Girl”; and the grandmother was her paternal grandmother).
After that, I set the shooting mode then ran to bring water to Kim Phuc. When I poured water on Kim Phuc’s body, she shouted. I had to borrow someone else’s raincoat to cover her body. I thought she wouldn’t make it.
What happened after that?
I, with many other children, climbed into the provided van and returned to Saigon.
An uncle of Kim Phuc asked if I could bring her with me. I picked her up in the car, she was unable to sit because of the big burns on her mouth, back and hands. The little girl cried the whole trip because of her pain. As soon as the car arrived at Trang Bang, I immediately opened the door and took her to the hospital.
I received feedback that no other photo of the Vietnam War was as excellent as this one from the AP. This photo was later reposted by multiple places. A few days later, the street protests against the Vietnam War happened partly thanks to this photo.
Kim Phuc grew up with pain, and has been through so many changes since that photo. Looking back, has she ever self-loathed because of the lost privacy?
I went to many places for business trips with Kim Phuc. Whenever she gives speeches or shares, Kim Phuc makes everyone cry.
When Kim Phuc was shown the photo of herself naked in the newspaper, she was very angry at the reporter who took it. She hated that photo.
But now Kim Phuc likes the photo “Napalm Girl” - no, she even loves it. Kim Phuc once shared that she understood that I took the photo to talk about the war. There are many victims of war who suffer more than her, but they are not recorded with a single photograph. That day, even when bombs exploded nearby, I still came to take this photo.
I consider Kim Phuc as my niece. I just talked to her a few days ago. She suggested going to the US to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth of the photo “Napalm Girl.” We’re both hoping that from now until June next year, the pandemic will no longer be a problem so we can return to Vietnam.
What do you think about young people these days who know little about the historic “Napalm Girl” photo taken 50 years ago?
Young people in America today seem to know more about the photo “Napalm Girl.” From high school to university, students are taught about this photo.
At many major museums, the photo “Napalm Girl” and many other photos of the Vietnam War are displayed. So I am quite busy answering emails from students, not only in the US but also in many other places around the world.
Young people in Vietnam today also have many methods to approach the story of this photo through social networks such as Facebook or Instagram.
Do you plan to return to Vietnam to tell stories through photos in the future?
I’m about to fly over to Switzerland to hold a workshop. Recently, a friend invited me to Saudi Arabia to do another workshop. The Moroccan government also invited me to create a historical photo book for their country.
I also want to do many things when I return to Vietnam. I will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the photo “Napalm Girl,” set up a library in Trang Bang with financial support from some American veterans. But because of the pandemic, I temporarily postponed the plan.
You’re a self-taught photographer, then became one of the most prominent battlefield lensmen of the past 50 years. Seems like this is a one-of-a-kind career story.
In my case, yes. In the US, they teach photojournalism only in schools. If you want to be successful, you have to go out and practice.
Back then, I learned from my older brother, who was an AP photojournalist. He took photos of the battlefield every day. I saw the photos he took, listened to him telling stories of the surroundings, then I taught myself.
In the past, I used to ask for good cameras. My older brother then gave me a wake-up punch. When he passed away, I started working at AP, where I could choose any camera brand I like.
I first went to the darkroom to work when I was 16 years old. The AP reporters in Saigon at that time were all proficient and famous around the world. I learned a lot from the people who later became my colleagues and friends.
You cannot learn those experiences in schools. Many graduates of journalism schools have to come to AP to meet and ask to follow me to take news photos. In addition, the journalistic nature of AP also helps newcomers to have fuller access to news agencies.
When I came to the US, I worked with many different fields in photojournalism, from Congress to Hollywood artists, from protests to earthquakes. I was a war correspondent, so when I switched to international news photography, I also encountered some difficulties.
As you talk about Hollywood and paparazzi, to you, what distinguishes a news photojournalist and a paparazzi?
Normally, big award ceremonies in Hollywood (like Oscars) usually choose three big news agencies: AFP, Reuters, and AP, and another newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, to stand next to the red carpet and the artists to take photos. But paparazzi only stand from afar.
In fact, photojournalists working at many newspaper offices in the US are not so different from paparazzi. Many news agencies still have to send people to watch at the stars’ houses to take photos of them after drinking, being arrested, or detained.
I’ve been taking press-news photos for AP for a total of 51 years. If I were a paparazzi, I would be rich. Television stations in the United States have seen my name several times when they were recording, and said, Nick Ut also does paparazzi? I had to call the director (who is a friend of mine) and they apologized profusely.
I once guided this person who used to go around taking photos behind the scenes. One day, he went to AP and asked me to process a photographic film. He said I had to process the film extremely carefully because there was a photo of Michael Jackson in a Pepsi commercial with his hair burned.
I also asked him, that if he wanted to be a paparazzi, I could recommend him. Then he sold that photo of Michael Jackson for an unbelievable amount. After decades, he still has enough money from selling that photo to treat me to dinner.
You’re constantly on the go, so what’s your day like?
I’m quite busy. I actually planned to take photos in the mountains with some reporters tonight. But to make time for this conversation, I canceled that trip.
Is wildlife photography your new focus?
I have photographed the press for more than 50 years; and I love this job. In the past three years, when I have completely left my position at AP, I took photos as a collaborator for Getty Images.
So I still travel to many places, photographing everything from issues like protests and immigration, to nature like whales and birds. Besides, some of my friends in Los Angeles love taking wildlife photos, whether it is the desert or the sea.
A few days ago, I just received my salary from Getty Images, somewhat around 1000 USD. I collaborated for the joy and my love for photography, not for money, so I was very happy to receive the remuneration.
You photograph everything, but is there a specific subject that is special and appealing to you at the moment?
For the past two months, I have been creating a collection of stories through photos of immigrants and emigrants from the United States, containing photos of people crossing the fence from Mexico or other states in the US. Every day, thousands of people from many parts of the world go to the US such as Russia, South Africa, India, Cuba, Haiti, or China.
I also checked to see if there were any Vietnamese coming to the US but there were none; most of them have lived in other countries in Europe or South America. The border gates in Mexico and the United States are open. Immigrants only need to fill out information and be investigated (within 24 hours) to enter the United States.
The reality at America’s borders today is no different from the past. Because people who escape across the Mexican border are also caught, robbed, or even raped.
A month ago, I took a photo of a Cuban girl. When photographing, I saw her crying nonstop. The girl did not dare to tell the journalist, but told the police. She was raped by a group of Americans, and was detained for selling heroin.
I will return to that border area tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, that’s the plan.
What does the story of you being assaulted on the street have to do with the Asian Hate movement, the trend of violence against Asians in the US?
Honestly, thanks to that guy who assaulted me, I became more famous.
The thing is, I was provided with a hotel room right next to the White House to stay in before receiving the National Medal of Arts from the US government. I invited a photographer friend to have lunch together. At that time, the city was on lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the streets were very empty.
While looking at the White House, a homeless man who smelled of alcohol stopped and beat me. Fortunately, the area was full of police, so everything happened in just about two minutes. When people heard that I had just been awarded the National Medal of Arts, many reporters interviewed me.
I explained that I was beaten because that homeless man was drunk, not because of anything else. The police asked if I wanted to sue but I didn’t, so they only detained the man for 24 hours then released him.
I went home, took medicine and was completely cured a few days later.
Have you ever missed capturing a special moment?
I was driving home from the office. Normally I kept my camera on the seat, but that day I kept it in the trunk. I was driving when I saw a policeman being thrown frighteningly high by a car. But I couldn’t capture that moment.
Many of my friends also wonder how I am able to take photos all day. I explain that only when my hand is paralyzed, then I would stop taking photos. As long as my fingers are still active, I will continue to capture moments.
No lens is as good as the human eye, what do you think about this?
My eyes are often open to aim to photograph, so they are quite dry.
Do you think the moment of a lifetime in photojournalism has come to you?
I think it will still come. I just took two beautiful photos of the place between the border of Arizona and Mexico. In two weeks, I will go to Switzerland and bring these two photos to a competition. I hope I will get the award this year or next year.
But you have already won the biggest photography awards.
I have a friend who works at the Washington Post and has won four Pulitzer Prizes. No one like her has ever won four of these awards. I am still taking photos and still waiting for new awards to come to me.
Is it harder or easier to take photos when you’re at a place — whether dangerous or luxurious — where no one knows you?
I must admit that I am the luckiest person in the world. The photo I took of Kim Phuc (Napalm Girl) is famous everywhere, so people already know that Nick Ut is an AP photojournalist. Of course, they still have to examine the camera first.
Many celebrities in Hollywood also know me so taking photos of them is quite easy. Once I was sitting at the airport, a person approached me and asked for an autograph. I even wondered if I looked like a robber or something that everyone knew about me.
That person said, “You are Nick Ut. Who doesn’t know you?”
You can find the full conversation with photographer Nick Ut in Vietnamese here:
Adapted by Thao Van