How does an image become an icon? It is estimated that today we produce more images in two minutes than during the entire 19th century. How, then, can an image be so powerful that it can symbolize the horror of war and help mobilize anti-war sentiment?
Warning: This article contains graphic images that some may find disturbing.
June 8 marks the 50th anniversary since Associated Press photographer Hyung Cong “Nick” Út captured one of the defining images of the Vietnam War.
Titled “The Terror of War,” the black-and-white photograph has since been reproduced many times and continues to live on in collective memory.
Despite its age, the image still retains the ability to shock. A little girl is naked and runs directly towards the viewer. She is leaning slightly forward and her arms are away from her body.
His proximity to the camera lens is a direct address to the viewer: his agony and his terror are unambiguous.
Phan Thị Kim Phúc
A battle was underway in South Vietnam between the South Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong.
Several journalists had gathered just outside the village of Trảng Bàng, which had been occupied by North Vietnamese forces. South Vietnamese planes flew overhead and dropped four napalm bombs.
Moments later, a group of terrified survivors – including children – came running through the smoke and down the road toward the group of reporters.
In the immediate left foreground is a boy screaming in terror. On the right, holding hands, two other children run.
The viewer’s eye constantly moves around the photograph, searching for details. A photographer reloads film into his camera.
Soldiers walk casually behind the children, seemingly indifferent to their plight. The juxtaposition is striking and raises the emotional register of the photograph: soldiers are expected to help and lend assistance.
The image has a very different grainy texture to the smoothness of contemporary digital photography. Depth of field is cropped due to billowing smoke screen. Without a horizon to offer respite, the viewer’s gaze is forced to return to the little girl.
After taking the photos, Út was able to take the girl to a local hospital where she was treated for her burns.
Gradually, details about the children began to emerge: the little girl was named Phan Thị Kim Phúc and she was nine years old. She had gone into hiding with her family and other members of the village. She tore her clothes when they caught fire during the strike.
Informally known as the “Napalm Girl”, the confrontational image barely reached the rest of the world. Initially, the photograph was rejected by The Associated Press due to the girl’s nudity. Newspapers are bound by strict conventions and frontal nudity was considered a violation of decorum.
Hours later, that decision was reversed by Horst Faas, Associated Press photo editor in Vietnam, and the photograph was reproduced by newspapers around the world.
Vietnam: the first media war
The Vietnam War was the first to be televised. Television crews documented Kim Phúc’s escape, but the still image of Út gained notoriety and became entrenched in collective memory.
The photograph had an immediate and widespread impact. He has appeared in influential newspapers and magazines including Life and Newsweek. His place in photojournalism history was assured when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and World Press Photo in 1973.
As the art historian Julian Stallabrass has observed, very few napalm victims reached a hospital. It was the wide dissemination of Út photography that led Kim Phúc to receive the advanced medical treatment that saved his life.
Kim Phúc became the subject of television documentaries, as well as a biography documenting her life and defection from Vietnam to Canada.
In his book Regarding the pain of othersSusan Sontag argued that the photograph “belongs to the realm of photographs that cannot be posed”.
Over the past 50 years, our attitudes towards photography have changed.
Today, with phone photography so ubiquitous, most of us can take reasonable pictures. Our confidence in the “truth” status of photography has diminished. This can in part be attributed to the ubiquity of social media content that is regularly ‘beautified’ or ‘improved’.
In 2016, the photograph made headlines again, this time for violating Facebook’s censorship rules on nudity.
In 1972, “Napalm Girl” became the defining image of the generation that captured the futility of the war in Vietnam.
Read also: An interview with Nick Ut: the photojournalist who took the iconic photo of “Napalm Girl”
When we turn our attention to Ukraine, it may still be too early in the conflict for a photograph to emerge as the iconic symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russian invasion.
About the Author: Chari Larsson is Associate Professor of Art History at Griffith University. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. This article was originally published on The conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license.