How an iconic photo of naked girl made a lasting impact

Prepare to be moved to tears, because we have a lovely story to share. A friend sent me this amazing Associated Press story about a woman coming to terms with a stunning photo from her childhood. I would post the photo here, but AP owns the photo so you can find it here.

In the picture, the girl will always be 9 years old and wailing “Too hot! Too hot!” as she runs down the road away from her burning Vietnamese village.
She will always be naked after blobs of sticky napalm melted through her clothes and layers of skin like jellied lava.
She will always be a victim without a name.

The story is moving, told in chronological order about the girl and the photographer who snapped the picture.

Ut, the 21-year-old Vietnamese photographer who took the picture, drove Phuc to a small hospital. There, he was told the child was too far gone to help. But he flashed his American press badge, demanded that doctors treat the girl and left assured that she would not be forgotten.
“I cried when I saw her running,” said Ut, whose older brother was killed on assignment with the AP in the southern Mekong Delta. “If I don’t help her — if something happened and she died — I think I’d kill myself after that.”
Back at the office in what was then U.S.-backed Saigon, he developed his film. When the image of the naked little girl emerged, everyone feared it would be rejected because of the news agency’s strict policy against nudity.

So good, right? What does this story have to do with GetReligion?

She turned to Cao Dai, her Vietnamese religion, for answers. But they didn’t come.
“My heart was exactly like a black coffee cup,” she said. “I wished I died in that attack with my cousin, with my South Vietnamese soldiers. I wish I died at that time so I won’t suffer like that anymore. … It was so hard for me to carry all that burden with that hatred, with that anger and bitterness.”
One day, while visiting a library, Phuc found a Bible. For the first time, she started believing her life had a plan.
Then suddenly, once again, the photo that had given her unwanted fame brought opportunity.

Um, hello! What happened with the Bible? Did she magically find a plan through inspiring words or did she change her whole belief system? I want more. With a little bit of help from Wikipedia, I found this amazing 2008 article from NPR.

I spent my daytime in the library to read a lot of religious books to find a purpose for my life. One of the books that I read was the Holy Bible.

In Christmas 1982, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. It was an amazing turning point in my life. God helped me to learn to forgive — the most difficult of all lessons. It didn’t happen in a day and it wasn’t easy. But I finally got it.

Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed.

Napalm is very powerful but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness.

Hey, that’s a little more helpful. I still want more details, though. What kind of church does she attend now? Her website includes a speech where she talks about her faith, but it’s unclear whether her foundation has any faith-based angle or what.

After four decades, Phuc, now a mother of two sons, can finally look at the picture of herself running naked and understand why it remains so powerful. It had saved her, tested her and ultimately freed her.
“Most of the people, they know my picture but there’s very few that know about my life,” she said. “I’m so thankful that … I can accept the picture as a powerful gift. Then it is my choice. Then I can work with it for peace.”

Sure, the picture may have physically saved and freed her from her surroundings, but if the reporter dug a bit deeper, she probably would have a few things to say about the impact spiritually. The story is beautiful, but it has a hole so large a truck could drive through it.

Image of missing puzzle piece via Shutterstock.

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  • Charles Collins

    Cao Dai is also not some ancient Vietnamese religion. Vietnam is traditionally Buddhist. Cao Dai is less than 100 years old, and along with Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammad consider Shakespeare and Victor Hugo saints. It has been highly repressed by the Communist government.

  • Roberto

    Her story was the subject of a CT column by the late Chuck Colson (it feels weird to type “late” in connection with Chuck) and Nancy Pearcy.

    Here’s the link

  • Jerry

    The NPR segment, not an article actually, is a classic example of why NPR is such an important resource. The series allowed people to speak in their own voices as in this case. This is a classic example of how we get such a deeper understanding by letting someone speak. The best reporters can help draw out a story, but for the majority of stories like this one, the best “reporting” is letting a person say what they have to say.

  • carl jacobs

    The power of a picture is found in its ability to capture an instant in time and strip it of its context. It forces the reader to react to that and only that image. Everything that came before is gone. Everything that comes after is unseen. All that remains is the image and the emotion and horror and terror that is contained therein. It communicates a stark if severely truncated message.

    Around this picture is built a story as told from the POV of the little girl. She doesn’t understand, and so the reader is given no ability to understand. The bombing is presented as a pointless attack in an arbitrary battle in an arbitrary war. There is smoke. A plane suddenly appears and drops a bomb. Death and destruction ensue. It is silently presented as a perfect encapsulation of the war. I understand the puffs of smoke. They were from a FAC. They marked enemy positions for an airstrike. That’s why the bombs were dropped where they were. And suddenly the alert reader recognizes the startling absence in the story. The South Vietnamese are present. The Sykraider Pilot is present. The civilians are present. But where are the North Vietnamese? You could almost miss it.

    It was June 8, 1972, when Phuc heard the soldier’s scream: “We have to run out of this place! They will bomb here, and we will be dead!”

    Whose soldiers? North Vietnamese? The story doesn’t say, but it would seem so. Why was Phuc close enough to hear them say this? The story doesn’t say. Were the soldiers fighting from the temple where she took refuge? The story doesn’t say. Why was there even fighting in Trang Bang in 1972? The story doesn’t say. There is no mention of the Easter Offensive. It simply says:

    As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end.

    And that is the enduring image that so many want to preserve of the Vietnam War. Journalists return to visit and meditate upon one of their great moments:

    It communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of America’s darkest eras.

    There are tens of thousands of such potential pictures that were never taken that could have had equally iconic impact. Each equally impactful and each equally truncated. But this picture has become the Textus Receptus of the war, and the priests of journalism are jealous to guard the manuscript. All that went before is forgotten. Blind eyes are turned to all that came after. There is this moment of time captured on film and nothing else.


  • Bill

    Good piece, but you’re right Sarah, the Bible part was left hanging. A lot of words were spent showing how she was hurt. How she was healed deserved a few more.

    I agree with Jerry about NPR. Even here in the wilds of Texas, many of my very conservative and libertarian friends listen to NPR. NPR has a liberal viewpoint and is often predictable, but it tries to cover a wide range of stories and does what it does very, very well.

    It only took a second for Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut to snap the iconic black-and-white image 40 years ago. It communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of America’s darkest eras.

    Not exactly. For many, the war will never be over.

    I remember a friend waxing eloquent about the beauty of watching a C-130 Specter gunship pivoting gracefully over a target, its tracers sparkling against the purple afterglow of the just-set sun. But the truth of war is brought out by photos like this that show the humanness of war: its cruelty and kindness, heroism and perfidy, and above all, the fragility and resilience of life.

    During WWII, there was another photo which shook the American people: three dead Marines at water’s edge on Buna Beach, Papua, NG. It was not a photo of mangled corpses, but a still life of three Americans strewn carelessly on the sand at water’s edge. The tide had begun to bury one; was there no one to give him a proper burial?

    At home, loved ones waited and worried and prayed. At the front, the mission was paramount. It had to be. And the wrecked assets, steel and flesh, would have to wait.

    I am so happy that Phuc is alive and living in the west and has a family. Flowers grow from the ash of Mt. St. Helen’s.

  • Bill