It's been exactly 50 years since the photograph was taken that many say is the most powerful image of innocent war victims ever. "Napalm Girl," which was captured at the height of the Vietnam War in 1972, is also the story of that girl at the center of the image.
Taken exactly 50 years ago, “Napalm Girl” has become a timeless symbol of the horrors of war as Vietnamese civilians flee their village after it had been hit by airstrikes.
But the “girl” in question at the center of the photograph — Kim Phuc Phan Thi — also has a story to tell that stretches beyond that defining 20th-century moment.
Napalm stuck to her skin
Kim was born in the small village of Trang Bang in South Vietnam in 1963. Despite the war around her, she has recalled her early years with fond memories, growing up on her family’s farm. One day, Kim was playing in the local temple courtyard when she heard a deafening noise. A plane swooped down, and suddenly her surroundings erupted in smoke and flames.
“I don’t remember running and screaming, Nóng quá, nóng quá! ('Too hot, too hot!'),” she told The New York Times recently. “But film footage and others’ memories show that I did.”
Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut, who was working for the Associated Press, shot the photo, on June 8, 1972, showing a nine-year-old Kim and other villagers fleeing after the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese airforce fighters dropped incendiary napalm bombs over Trang Bang and the surrounding area.
The children in the photo experienced excruciating pain as the napalm stuck to their skin. Kim is seen naked and screaming after ripping off her burning clothes, and Ut immediately picked her up after snapping the image and brought her to a hospital where doctors at first didn’t expect her to survive.
Life after the photo
At times, Kim says she resented Ut for allowing her disfigured naked body to be displayed so publicly, but ultimately remains a strong defender of what the photo stands for. The two remained close, with Kim referring to Ut as “Uncle Ut,” but they wouldn’t see each other for another 17 years after the photo was taken.
Ut had moved to the U.S. just 2 years after the fall of Saigon to continue a successful career as a photojournalist. Kim ultimately made it to Canada, where she now heads the Kim Foundation International, an organization which provides support for victims of war.
“I have carried the results of war on my body. You don’t grow out of the scars, physically or mentally. I am grateful now for the power of that photograph of me as a 9-year-old, as I am of the journey I have taken as a person. My horror — which I barely remember — became universal. I’m proud that, in time, I have become a symbol of peace.”
After 50 years, Kim relates her experience to the recurring horrors of school shootings in the United States, advocating the uncensoring of news images of the killings, with the hope that once the public is forced to confront their reality, change will take effect.