Vietnam's Most Harrowing Photo: From Guilt to Grace

Nov. 22 1996 3:30 AM

Vietnam's Most Harrowing Photo: From Guilt to Grace

By Charles Paul Freund

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(932 words; posted Thursday, Nov. 21; to be composted Thursday, Nov. 28)

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One of photography's most terrible strengths is its power to accuse. The ability of imagery to forgive, to reconcile, is a good deal more circumscribed--but then, that is true of expression itself. Guilt will be borne; grace is fleeting.

Yet, both guilt and grace shared space on front pages and TV screens a few days ago; they came together in the face of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who, after 24 years of mute and frozen accusation, stepped forward at this year's Veterans Day ceremony in Washington, D.C., to lay to rest that portion of a painful past that she has carried in her own face.

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Anyone old enough to remember the imagery of Vietnam would surely have viewed the pictures of Kim at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial through Nick Ut's harrowing, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of children fleeing a napalm attack on a village outside Saigon. That 1972 photo has lost none of its dark horror over the years. It still transforms its viewers into witnesses; it still asks of them the same fearsome question: What have you to do with this?

Kim, 9 years old in 1972, had taken shelter with others in a pagoda when the American military ordered the South Vietnamese air force to attack her village of Trang Bang because it had been infiltrated by enemy forces. The pagoda was hit, killing, among others, two of Kim's brothers. Terrified survivors streamed onto the highway, where photographer Ut snapped them. Kim is naked, screaming in fear and agony, in the center of the image.

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In fact, the image tells little of this story. It is not a picture of a military attack and its aftermath; it is a picture of terror. We know this is war: The presence of soldiers tells us that. And we know something has just happened, because we see black smoke obliterating the horizon. But what? Terrified children are running down a hellish highway that disappears behind them into a smoky vanishing point, a highway that seems to run through a barren and burning plain.

What can they be running toward? Perhaps they see something down the highway, behind us. But there is no anticipation of sanctuary to be found in their faces. If it is succor toward which they run, they will have to run forever.

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Especially disconcerting is the naked girl in the middle of the highway. It isn't clear to us why she is naked; perhaps the force of an explosion has blown away her clothes. Is she injured? We can't quite tell. Oddly, she is the only one in the image looking back at us. And we are the only ones looking at her. Indeed, the very act of staring at her nakedness seems to only intensify her humiliation. There is a dimension to her unending scream that seems to be in reaction to our very act of witness. The effect is deeply disturbing.

Ut's was not the only camera present; the sequence exists on film as well. Because it is more dreadful physically, the film is less potent emotionally. (The same is true for another of Vietnam's most famous images: Eddie Adams' photo of the gun-to-temple execution of a Viet Cong.)