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50 years later, woman from iconic ‘Napalm Girl’ photo shares message about Ukraine, school shootings

  • For the 50th anniversary of Vietnam’s “Napalm Girl” photo, Kim Phuc Phan Thi, who was only 9 when it was taken, offered a message of hope and positivity.

  • When it was first published in 1972, the photo gained widespread attention and won a Pulitzer Prize, becoming one of the most well-known images of the Vietnam War.

  • Despite the physical and mental hardships Kim faced, she emphasized the importance of images in confronting the realities of war.

  • However, citing herself as proof, Kim stated, “Look how horrible war is. But, look, right now, my life, how beautiful the world can be.”

  • In her guest essay for the New York Times, Kim wrote about how she journeyed through life with the photograph, learned to love the photo and became a symbol of peace.

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Kim Phuc Phan Thi, Vietnam’s “Napalm Girl,” is offering a message of hope with the world 50 years after the iconic photo that featured her was taken.

The “Napalm Girl” photo was taken in Trảng Bàng by the South Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut when Phan Thi was only 9. The powerful and controversial image was placed on the front pages of many newspapers, won a Pulitzer Prize and would become one of the most famous images of the Vietnam War.

Taken on June 8, 1972, the “Napalm Girl” photo captures a series of children fleeing a Napalm bombing of Trảng Bàng – their home – during the Vietnamese War. In the center of the frame, the nude 9-year-old Kim Phuc Phan Thi became known as the “Napalm Girl,” embodying the horrors of war both then and since.

With the photo’s 50th anniversary on June 8, Phan Thi relived the events behind the photo and its effects in a guest essay for the New York Times

“Nick changed my life forever with that remarkable photograph. But he also saved my life,” Phan Thi wrote.

While suffering the consequences of the Napalm burns — which included a third of her body burned, chronic pain, scars, anxiety and depression — Phan Thi expressed how the popularity of her image made it “more difficult to navigate my private and emotional life.” 

“The child running down the street became a symbol of the horrors of war,” she said. “The real person looked on from the shadows, fearful that I would somehow be exposed as a damaged person. Photographs, by definition, capture a moment in time. But the surviving people in these photographs, especially the children, must somehow go on. We are not symbols. We are human. We must find work, people to love, communities to embrace, places to learn and to be nurtured.”

This message is more important than ever in light of recent events, Phan Thi explained. She highlighted the “human lives being damaged and destroyed today in Ukraine” and school shootings that “are the domestic equivalent of war.”

“The thought of sharing the images of the carnage, especially of children, may seem unbearable — but we should confront them,” Phan Thi continued.  “It is easier to hide from the realities of war if we don’t see the consequences.”

When she reached adulthood and defected to Canada, Kim’s perspective on life and peace began to change. 

“I began to find peace and realize my mission in life, with the help of my faith, husband and friends,” Phan Thi wrote. “I helped establish a foundation and began traveling to war-torn countries to provide medical and psychological assistance to children victimized by war, offering, I hope, a sense of possibilities.”

Looking back on her photo, the survivor told the Toronto Star she hopes to tell people: “Look how horrible war is. But look, right now, my life, how beautiful the world can be … Everyone can live with love, with hope, and forgiveness. If everyone can learn to live like that, we absolutely don’t need war.”

Alongside Phan Thi, Ut said, “That photo represents the war and I’m very proud of it … That photo that I took of Kim Phuc really changed the conditions of the war and how people saw the war in Vietnam.” 

She has also expressed her gratitude towards Ut for the picture and considers him a part of her family and calls him her “hero.”

In the final lines of her essay, Phan Thi writes, “I’m proud that, in time, I have become a symbol of peace. It took me a long time to embrace that as a person. … That picture will always serve as a reminder of the unspeakable evil of which humanity is capable. Still, I believe that peace, love, hope and forgiveness will always be more powerful than any kind of weapon.”

Today, Phan Thi remains in Canada and works with the Kim Foundation International, a non-profit organization that aims to “help heal the wounds suffered by innocent children and to restore hope and happiness to their lives.”


Feature Image via DW News

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