Video: Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl and the Controversy of War Photography

Screenshot from the video showing the uncropped Napalm Girl by Nick Ut

Recognized as one of the most important works of photojournalism and haunting images of war, the iconic Napalm Girl remains relevant and talked about decades after it was taken. Vietnamese-American Nick Ut, then a 19-year old photographer for the Associated Press (AP), captured the harrowing scene of children running away from a napalm bombing near their village in Trang Bang on June 8, 1972. At the center of the frame is 9-year old Kim Phuc, naked and crying in agony from the severe burns on her back and left arm.

While unprecedented and controversial for its nudity, Napalm Girl appeared on the front page of The New York Times the next day, and earned Ut a Pulitzer Prize and World Press Photo of the Year award in 1973. Still, nudity wasn’t the only reason the iconic photograph was met with controversy.

When the uncropped version of the image surfaced, it revealed another photographer on the right side of the frame, calmly loading film into his camera amidst the chaos happening just steps away. Markus Kretzschmar explains the implications of this in the video below:

While cropping a photo is a common practice that is considered very ethical, the alteration of documentary images continues to raise apprehension to this day. What the original image revealed also sparked debate on photojournalists taking their image first before helping victims of war and conflict. To that end, photojournalists are often taught to simply observe and document–not to interact. However, Markus believes that in the case of the Napalm Girl, the narrower view further emphasized the harrowing details of the tragedy, such as the ominous cloud of the explosion and Kim Phuc’s pain. This ensured that viewers focused on the horror and cruelty of the Vietnam War, and could make a more educated opinion against it.

“Isn’t it the suffering of civilians that make people think about what’s happening there and in war in general,” he argues.

Personally speaking, we don’t think the uncropped version of the photo would have changed the scene as it happened at all–this is still in every right a documentary style image. But by cropping out the photojournalist, the frame puts more emphasis on the children and the chaos that is happening behind them.

What about you, what’s your thought or take on this?