In the Nick of time

I wondered why the girl was running naked on the highway” says Nick Ut, recalling the instant before he photographed the screaming nine-year old. It was 1972. Even then, decades before the advent of social media, photographs and protests had a way of going viral. The girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, became renowned as the “Napalm Girl” immortalising the terror and cruelty of the Vietnam War. This fabled photograph of the My Lai massacre triggered a hurricane of public outrage, contributing to the American pullout from the disastrous war.

Worth more than a million words, the picture transformed Nick into an international celebrity. He is in Kochi for his photo exhibition “From Hell to Hollywood”, marking the first edition of the Watertown Festival, held in conjunction with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. A must-experience event for art lovers and indeed all thinking public, the biennale is impactful because of the creative and compelling manner in which Indian and international artists depict the critical issues of our times. Nick’s exhibition is held in the charming Mocha Art Café in Kochi’s Jew Town.

Nick Ut | Bhanu Prakash Chandra Nick Ut | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

It was Nick’s iconic picture that nailed the lie that Napalm was not being used on civilians. Then US president Richard Nixon tried to discredit the picture as “fake”. Somethings never change! Says Nick, “They said Kim was burnt by cooking oil. Napalm tears the skin off the body. It blasted away Kim’s skin and clothes. I could see smoke coming out of her skinless body.”

As an Associated Press (AP) photographer, Nick should have taken more pictures. But he could not. He hurried to his vehicle to grab a raincoat to cover the tormented child. She had 80 per cent burns and zero chances of survival. Nick rushed her to hospitals nearby, but was turned away as the staff did not wish to waste their energy or precious medicines on a “hopeless case”. Eventually, he succeeded in taking her to the American base hospital. Much later, after Kim became world-famous, she went to John Hopkins hospital in the US for treatment. A grandmother, Kim now lives in Canada.

Inevitably, none of Nick’s rich trove of subsequent photographs attained the stardom of his legendary picture taken almost half a century ago. But his talent has not dimmed. His subsequent photographs continue to have that arresting quality. With unerring instinct, he captures in a split second the foible or flaw in his subjects—O.J. Simpson getting out of the car both feet planted on the ground, court documents in hand and a crafty smirk on his face; Michael Jackson dandily flipping his long hair as he enters the courtroom; a beaming Obama escorting his daughter Malia; a jet taking off, marvelously silhouetted in black inside a huge, incandescent full moon; the divine bliss on the face of a snow monkey soaking in Japan’s hot springs. The exhibition also features lesser-known photographs chronicling Vietnam War atrocities.

At 67, Vietnam-born Nick bustles with energy, engaging with issues and strangers with child-like curiosity and enthusiasm. With striking bushy, black eyebrows contrasting his white hair, he looks like a quirky film negative. He delights in showing me pictures of him with celebrities that he stores on his mobile phone. They are all there—the Clintons, the Obamas and a parade of Hollywood stars, singers, sportsmen and models. He chuckles as he shows pictures of him cuddling gorgeous blondes who tower over him. Nick lives in California and retired from AP last year. So what’s he going to do next? He smiles: “Keep taking pictures until I die.”

Pratap is an author and journalist.