Story Behind The 50-Year-Old Pulitzer Prize Winning 'Napalm Girl' Photo
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Story Behind The 50-Year-Old Pulitzer Prize Winning 'Napalm Girl' Photo

Rachael Grealish June 8, 2022

This year is the 50th anniversary of the infamous Vietnam War ‘Napalm Girl’ photo but what’s the story behind the photo?

The Vietnam War kicked off in 1955 and was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States.

‘Napalm Girl’ photo

The conflict was one of the most widely-documented wars of the time and was the first to really be televised. The photographers from the time produced some of the most iconic and infamous war photos, none quite so well-known as the ‘Napalm Girl’.

Vietnamese children flee from their homes in the South Vietnamese village of Trang Bang after South Vietnamese planes accidently dropped a napalm bomb on the village, located 26 miles outside of Saigon. Twenty-five years later, the young girl running naked from her village, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, was named UNESCO goodwill ambassador.

In 1972 – three years before the conflict would officially end and a year before the US withdrew from the country – on June 8, outside the village of Trang Bang, the South Vietnamese army’s 25th Division fled alongside the civilians who were escaping the napalm attack behind them.

Associated Press photographer Nick Ut captured the scene when he was assisting with burnt children – one of which was the badly burned, naked nine-year-old at the centre of the image, aka ‘Napalm Girl’.

However, Ut and AP officially titled the image ‘The Terror of War’ as it captured the trauma and indiscriminate violence of a conflict that claimed millions of lives. Many of these were thought to be civilians, like the children screaming in the photo.

The real ‘Napalm Girl’

The girl in the image was actually called Phan Thi Kim Phuc and, now 59, she has spoken openly about her experience living the image.

Before the photo was taken, Phuc was actually playing outside a temple with her cousins when a plane swept down close to the area. She said this is when she was hit with the napalm.

The photographer, Ut, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for the image, but Phuc spent her life hating it, according to her New York Times op-ed.

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In the image, Phuc had removed her clothes as her skin was burning and ran and, since then, she has spoken about how she hated seeing the image growing up.

She said: ‘I grew up detesting that photo. I thought to myself, “I am a little girl. I am naked. Why did he take that picture? Why didn’t my parents protect me? Why did he print that photo? Why was I the only kid naked while my brothers and cousins in the photo had their clothes on?” I felt ugly and ashamed.’

Due to the napalm attack burning and scarring her skin, Phuc also grew up ashamed of how she looked. So having the constant reminder of the infamous photo hanging around wasn’t easy.

‘I tried to hide my scars under my clothes. I had horrific anxiety and depression. Children in school recoiled from me. I was a figure of pity to neighbours and, to some extent, my parents,’ she revealed.

Ut saved her life

Ut may have been a photographer simply documenting the horror, but he actually proved to be a huge help to those in need that day. Phuc even said he saved her life.

‘After he took the photo, he put his camera down, wrapped me in a blanket and whisked me off to get medical attention. I am forever thankful.’

According to CNN Ut said: ‘I saw Kim running and she (screamed in Vietnamese) “Too hot! Too hot!”.

‘When I took the photo of her, I saw that her body was burned so badly, and I wanted to help her right away. I put all my camera gear down on the highway and put water on her body.’

50 years on from her ordeal, Phuc is an activist and became a designated UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for peace in 1997.

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Rachael is the Senior Content Editor at Freshered. She is NCTJ qualified with an MA in journalism. Rachael has almost ten years experience as a journalist in regional, national and international press and is passionate about creating engaging content.