Was this exposure good journalism?
By Alan Russell
On the 8th June 1972 a picture was taken that was syndicated around the world within twenty four hours appearing on major newspapers front pages and headlining television news broadcasts. It was a grainy black and white picture that stimulated objection around the world to a war in Vietnam and in some ways added pressure to the American Government lead by President Nixon to seek an end to the fighting in this corner of South East Asia.
Most of us who can remember the Vietnam War and our daily exposure to its horrors will probably have placed that image deep into the recesses of our memory. Then, every so often something will trigger a reaction in us to retrieve it but what do we think about it before placing back where it came from?
My own memories were triggered when I was given a book for Christmas 2016, some 44 years after a camera shutter clicked, with that very same picture on the front cover bringing back memories of seeing footage of B52’s dropping their payloads, bloodied soldiers being stretchered into helicopters and that one lasting image of a South Vietnamese soldier about to fire a single bullet into the head of a suspected Vietcong fighter.
That picture on the front of the Christmas book has been seared into the history of photo journalism is of a naked nine year old girl running towards the camera. Her face is contorted in pain, shock, fear, panic and whatever else adjectives can be applied to a child’s image running away from conflict. Around her are other children. The older ones are also running away looking for some safe sanctuary beyond the photographer’s left shoulder. One really young child is looking back at the smoke filled sky. In fascination, in wonderment, in bewilderment? Who knows what was going through his mind that day? Perhaps he was looking back hoping to see his only source of comfort, his mum or his dad who could be there to help him make some sense of what was going on around him?
The photograph was taken by Nick Ut of Associated Press who joined the press corps after losing at least two relatives in the same profession in the same war tearing his home country to pieces. He wanted to honour their memory by following in their professional footsteps. The picture he took that June day in 1972 was awarded the highest award possible for photo journalism, The Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
The naked girl in the photograph was Kim Phuc and those other civilians around her were most likely members of her family who lived in Trang Bang some forty kilometres from Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City in the united country of Vietnam.
That picture became world famous overnight. People were horrified that here in front of them while eating breakfast, lunch or dinner with their family including children, not too unlike Kim, was an image of a girl who had been seriously burned by napalm. Napalm dropped on her village by the very military machine that was meant to be protecting her freedom. Her freedom to go to school to learn, to play with her friends, help with bringing up her siblings, to play with her grandfather and to feel safe and secure in her family environs.
Kim Phuc’s privacy had been invaded by that picture and any vestiges of childhood innocence stripped away but the photographer had not gone out deliberately to a conflict area to photograph a naked nine year old girl in distress. He had gone to Trang Bang along with several other journalists following a tipoff from a South Vietnamese senior officer that there was going to be some action in and around the town. So, the question to ask is ‘Was this good journalism or not?’
My emphatic belief is that ‘Yes it was’. Why? Because it stimulated a reaction amongst those who saw it that may well have contributed to the efforts to end the war in Vietnam. If it did contribute to ending of that war then it contributed to changing the course of history. The war would have ended eventually but by how much it was curtailed as a result of that one picture but is open to conjecture and there other people more qualified than me who can provide opinions on that subject.
After a flush of fame created by the picture being used by the North Vietnamese and anti-war protestors around the world to support their respective causes Kim Phuc slipped into anonymity. She eventually settling in Toronto in an apartment with her husband and young child living a normal life in the Chinese quarter.
In 1995 Kim Phuc and her husband became intuitively aware that their apartment was being watched. The walkway outside their apartment would be littered with cigarette ends and fast food containers. Kim kept a watchful eye from behind her net curtains. Adjectives such as ‘paranoia’ and ‘claustrophobia’ were used to describe their feelings in my Christmas book by Denise Chong ‘The Girl in The Picture’ published in 1995.
Their fears of being watched were confirmed one Sunday morning when they went to church. There the man who bought the newspapers for the reading room held up a copy of a Sunday paper with that famous picture from 1972 accompanied by a picture of Kim and her husband casually walking out with their child in a pram and asked ‘Is that you?’ Kim could not deny it. Her years of private anonymity had been destroyed in one headline.
The newspaper that was responsible for watching the apartment and causing stress was the Mail on Sunday published in the UK.
‘Was this photograph good journalism?’
My emphatic answer to that question is ‘No, it was not.’
My reason is that for the sake of a story that has not contributed to influencing history was it necessary to invade of someone’s privacy? An intrusion that created feelings of insecurity, paranoia and claustrophobia in the very place people have a universal human right to feel safe and secure.
Publishing the famous picture twenty three years after it was taken may have refreshed peoples’ memories of the war in Vietnam for a fleeting moment until the next horrific image emerged from another and more current conflict zone. However, in 1995 did that very picture and the human interest story that the Mail on Sunday published affect history?