INTERVIEW: Iconic Photographer Nick Ut Hangs Up His Camera

KATIE TRINH WRITES – Everyone has a story, a unique and personal story. Both my parents were born in Vietnam. Their roots originated in China but they emigrated to Vietnam to escape Communism. Communism eventually spread to Vietnam and my family escaped once again. They migrated to the Philippines and Malaysia before making their way to California through a church sponsorship during the Vietnam War. My parents were young, no older than 13 years old. They both came from big families and some relatives were lost on the journey to the land of the free. They learned English, struggled in school, earned college degrees and gave my siblings and me a life we often take for granted. That’s my parents’ story.

Here’s another story. Nick Ut is a Los Angeles-based photographer for the Associated Press who in the 1960s and 1970s captured the horror of the Vietnam War. He is best known for the photograph he named “Terrible War,” but which is better known as “Napalm Girl.” The striking photo depicts a young girl, nude, running with other children away from their bombed-out village. Since the photo’s release, Nick received numerous awards, including the coveted Pulitzer Prize at age 19.

Ut’s older brother was also an AP photographer, but was killed during the war. Nick wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps as a photographer, showing people just how horrible war is. The photos he took during the war, especially “Napalm Girl,” were for the purpose of trying to stop the war.

In early July, the Los Angeles Press Club held an awards dinner for local journalists and media outlets to be recognized for their work in the previous year. At the dinner, Ut received the Press Club’s highest honor, the Joseph M. Quinn Award for Journalistic Excellence and Distinction. The dinner also reunited Ut and Kim Phuc, the nude girl featured in the photo. I had the opportunity to interview Nick and get an update on his story:


Seeing how your brother was killed in the war, and seeing all these tragedies happen right in front of you, you knew how dangerous it was for you to be a photographer during a war – to be a combat photographer. What made you still want to go out and shoot these photographs about all these people getting hurt? You got hurt yourself, so what made you motivated to keep going just to take a picture?

When you’re a young man, when you are single – I don’t worry about anything. I say, ‘I die, I die’, that’s why I keep shooting. If I’m married, I don’t think I would ever go to war. Because you’re married, you have children … you want to see your kids. That’s why I say, ‘Oh, I’m single. Even if I die, so what?’ You die anyways one day. That’s why I keep going out to shoot. So I got shot many times and I worry that I die many times. … But I prayed all the time, and I thought about my brother.

Ut on assignment for the Associated Press.
Ut on assignment for the Associated Press.

With photography being so easy today and all the craziness between celebrities and the paparazzi, where do you think the line is drawn between being paparazzi and being a photojournalist?

Everyone wants to be a photojournalist and I meet trouble with them all the time. Every time I go on my assignment and I shoot, people with iPhone are all pushing together. I’m so angry with myself, too. That’s why I want to retire. It’s just not a fun job anymore. No fun anymore! These are just regular people; they are not media. And I worked in media, we work along together. We had a media pass and everyone else with their iPhone taking a picture, pushing, don’t care who you are. That’s why I’m so angry.

Do you think combat photography is any different 40 years ago compared to today?

Today, very big difference. Vietnam War was very dangerous too but the Vietnam War, they don’t kidnap people, they don’t kidnap journalists. But here, now, everything – Iraq and Syria – they kill many journalists. Even if you don’t take a picture they kill you. But Vietnam they don’t kill you. The media – like when my brother died, that was an accident only. If they kidnap me, I can go home.

Would you like to go back to combat photography?

I would but I’m not a young man anymore. I’m an old man now, I’m over 60. But I can go back for one more… but who knows, I hope no more wars.

AP Photography legend Nick Ut speaks with Asia Media’s Katie Trinh at the Los Angeles Press Club awards dinner.

The story of my parents and Nick were both shaped by the Vietnam War. This event changed their lives but they were able to create a decent life after the war. That is not to say that their lives were not filled with strife and struggle. Many lives were taken and families were broken apart. The Vietnam War may have brought my family to America, but I am positive that both my parents and Nick would trade their citizenship for their lost relatives in a heartbeat.

Unfortunately, conflict continues to occur in the world and the Vietnam War is just another statistic that occurred in our history. But photojournalists, just like Nick Ut, are trying to capture the forlorn victims of war in hopes of preventing the next one. Because violent deaths and family separations should never be part of someone’s story.

Earlier this month Nick Ut announced his retirement from the Associated Press after 51 years.

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