This photograph, by Nick Ut, an Associated Press photographer, was taken 40 years ago as people were fleeing from Trang Bang village as napalm was being dropped on it from South Vietnamese planes.
The girl in the picture is Kim Phuc who was nine years old at the time. The fire from the napalm burned her clothes off and burned a third of her body, mostly her back and left arm. According to Ut she was screaming, “Nóng quá, nóng quá” (“Too hot, too hot!”). After he took the photo he rushed her to Barsky Hospital in Saigon where he was told she wouldn’t make it. He insisted on her being treated anyway. Miraculously she survived after 14 months in the hospital and more than 17 surgeries.
The AP had a rule against publishing any kind of frontal nudity, but made an exception for this powerful image which demonstrates the fear, terror, and the barbaric consequences of war. Nick Ut won a Pullitzer for its persuasiveness.
Photography freezes time and eternalizes a moment. This slowing down, this particular “still,” powerfully universalizes the tragedy of war. There is no room for emotional acquiescence no matter the cause or the politics or the ideology, to such collateral damage.
And yet and yet… wars continue. This photograph may awaken our conscience about the ramifications of war, but we too quickly forget its lesson. Moral amnesia takes root.
We have to continually relearn the lesson again and again.
(Kim Phuc has started a foundation to heal children caught in the cross-fire of war. She presently lives in Canada with her husband and two sons.)