40 Years After “Napalm Girl” Picture

David Burnett took this photo of the aftermath of a napalm attack in Vietnam in 1972. While he was loading his camera there, fellow photographer Nick Ut captured the famous “napalm girl” image.

David Burnett took this photo of the aftermath of a napalm attack in Vietnam in 1972. While he was loading his camera there, fellow photographer Nick Ut captured the famous “napalm girl” image.

By David Burnett

It’s difficult to explain to someone who has grown up in the world of digital photography just what it was like being a photojournalist in the all-too-recently-passed era of film cameras. That there was, necessarily, a moment when your finite roll of film would end at frame 36, and you would have to swap out the shot film for a fresh roll before being able to resume the hunt for a picture. In those “in between” moments, brief as they might have been, there was always the possibility of the picture taking place. You would try to anticipate what was happening in front of your eyes, and avoid being out of film at some key intersection of time and place. But sometimes the moment just wouldn’t wait. Photojournalism — the pursuit of storytelling with a camera — is still a relatively young trade, but there are plenty of stories about those missed pictures.

In the summer of 1972, I was a 25-year-old photojournalist working in Vietnam, mostly for Time and Life magazines. As the United States began winding down its direct combat role and encouraging Vietnamese fighting units to take over the war, trying to find and tell the story presented enormous challenges. On June 8, a New York Times reporter and I were going to explore what was happening on Route 1, an hour out of Saigon. We visited a small village that had seen some overnight fighting, but were told by locals that there was a bigger battle going on a few kilometers north. There, at the village of Trang Bang, I waited and watched with a dozen other journalists from a short distance as round after round of small-arm and grenade fire signaled an ongoing firefight. I was changing film in one of my old Leicas, an amazing camera with a reputation for being infamously difficult to load. As I struggled, a Vietnamese air force fighter came in low and slow and dropped napalm on what its pilot thought were enemy positions. Moments later, as I was still fumbling with my camera, the journalists were riveted by faint images of people running through the smoke. AP photographer Nick Ut took off toward the villagers who were running in desperation from the fire.

In one moment, when Ut’s Leica came up to his eye and he took a photograph of the badly burned children, he captured an image that would transcend politics and history and become emblematic of the horrors of war visited on the innocent. When a photograph is just right, it captures all those elements of time and emotion in an indelible way. Film and video treat every moment equally, yet those moments simply are not equal.

Within minutes, the children had been hustled into Nick’s car and were en route to a Saigon hospital. A couple of hours later, I found myself at the Associated Press darkroom, waiting to see what my own pictures looked like. Then, out from the darkroom stepped Nick Ut, holding a small, still-wet copy of his best picture: a 5-by-7 print of Kim Phuc running with her brothers to escape the burning napalm. We were the first eyes to see that picture; it would be another full day before the rest of the world would see it on virtually every newspaper’s Page 1.

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