The Big Picture

Vietnam’s Most Harrowing Photo: From Guilt to Grace

By Charles Paul Freund

(932 words; posted Thursday, Nov. 21; to be composted Thursday, Nov. 28)

One of photography’s most terrible strengths is its power to accuse. The ability of imagery to forgive, to reconcile, is a good deal more circumscribed–but then, that is true of expression itself. Guilt will be borne; grace is fleeting.

Yet, both guilt and grace shared space on front pages and TV screens a few days ago; they came together in the face of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who, after 24 years of mute and frozen accusation, stepped forward at this year’s Veterans Day ceremony in Washington, D.C., to lay to rest that portion of a painful past that she has carried in her own face.

Anyone old enough to remember the imagery of Vietnam would surely have viewed the pictures of Kim at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial through Nick Ut’s harrowing, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of children fleeing a napalm attack on a village outside Saigon. That 1972 photo has lost none of its dark horror over the years. It still transforms its viewers into witnesses; it still asks of them the same fearsome question: What have you to do with this?

Kim, 9 years old in 1972, had taken shelter with others in a pagoda when the American military ordered the South Vietnamese air force to attack her village of Trang Bang because it had been infiltrated by enemy forces. The pagoda was hit, killing, among others, two of Kim’s brothers. Terrified survivors streamed onto the highway, where photographer Ut snapped them. Kim is naked, screaming in fear and agony, in the center of the image.

In fact, the image tells little of this story. It is not a picture of a military attack and its aftermath; it is a picture of terror. We know this is war: The presence of soldiers tells us that. And we know something has just happened, because we see black smoke obliterating the horizon. But what? Terrified children are running down a hellish highway that disappears behind them into a smoky vanishing point, a highway that seems to run through a barren and burning plain.

What can they be running toward? Perhaps they see something down the highway, behind us. But there is no anticipation of sanctuary to be found in their faces. If it is succor toward which they run, they will have to run forever.

Especially disconcerting is the naked girl in the middle of the highway. It isn’t clear to us why she is naked; perhaps the force of an explosion has blown away her clothes. Is she injured? We can’t quite tell. Oddly, she is the only one in the image looking back at us. And we are the only ones looking at her. Indeed, the very act of staring at her nakedness seems to only intensify her humiliation. There is a dimension to her unending scream that seems to be in reaction to our very act of witness. The effect is deeply disturbing.

Ut’s was not the only camera present; the sequence exists on film as well. Because it is more dreadful physically, the film is less potent emotionally. (The same is true for another of Vietnam’s most famous images: Eddie Adams’ photo of the gun-to-temple execution of a Viet Cong.)

Vicki Goldberg, in her book The Power of Photography, describes the full, filmed sequence:

[T]he naked girl and the others … ran toward us rather slowly, like people finishing their run. They passed the camera, it followed from behind. The girl’s back and arm were seen to be completely covered with black patches of burned skin, no longer resembling flesh. American soldiers gave her a drink and poured water over her.

That is a level of atrocity from which most viewers must recoil. Furthermore, the filmed sequence closes out the event, and gives viewers an opportunity to shrug it off. Ut’s photo is of a crowded highway winding eternally through hell, and it won’t let you go.

Goldberg reports that the picture ran on front pages throughout America. Benjamin Spock, who chose the photo to speak for him in the 1994 exhibition “Talking Pictures,” certainly echoed many of its viewers when he wrote simply, “[I]t horrified me,” and credited it with confirming his opposition to the war.

The image was, of course, an important piece of atrocity propaganda for the North Vietnamese, who were themselves responsible for significant suffering both before and after they attained power. Like all such atrocity material, it undermined the morale of the side responsible for the pain it depicted. But the political manipulation of imagery doesn’t delegitimize its content. The pain here is only too real; Kim still suffers from her wounds.

In fact, Kim herself became a prisoner of this image. As she told National Public Radio, her desire to study medicine was thwarted by officials who wanted her to remain available for media interviews that stemmed from the photograph’s worldwide fame; she herself had become a propaganda exhibit. Eventually, she was able to study in Cuba, and during a visit to Canada she and her husband asked for–and were granted–asylum.

“If I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bomb,” Kim said during her remarkable appearance in Washington, “I would tell him we cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present. …”

A little girl, naked and in pain and with burned arms outstretched, staggers toward us down the middle of a highway. A quarter-century later, she reaches us. Who would have expected that when she finally covered that last patch of pocked road, she would offer her hand in grace?