AN INTERVIEW WITH NICK UT


Monday February 1, 2021


By ROBERT WOMACK
FROM HOLLYWOOD TO ASIA

Photojournalist, Pulitzer Prize Winner, World Press Photo of the Year, and of the National Medal of Arts

It is no doubt important to give some historical information on Nick Ut before delving into the interview. For those readers who are not familiar with Nick Ut’s work, he has had a long career as a photojournalist who covered the Vietnam War. Nick Ut worked for the Associated Press (AP) for 51 years before retiring; but as he puts it, he has never really retired from photography. The following is a condensed background on Nick Ut. Nick Ut, as he is known professionally, was born Huynh Cong Ut in Long An, Vietnam on March 29, 1951. Nick, or “Nicky” as his close friends and acquaintances call him, was just 14 when his brother Huynh Thanh My, who worked as a photojournalist for the Associated Press was killed in 1965. Nick asked if he could also work for the AP but was told he was too young, and that they didn’t want him to die as his brother had. Finally, the wife his of brother took him to AP in Saigon when he was 15, and again she asked for Nick to be a photojournalist. They reluctantly agreed to give him a job in the darkroom cleaning and mixing chemicals. Young Nick liked this job and learned a great deal about photography. His mentor was his boss, Horst Faas, also a two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. However, his heart was set on being a combat photojournalist. Young Nicky took photographs around Saigon and showed AP his work. They liked his work so much that they finally allowed him to go out in the field as a photojournalist, just as the war finally came to them. The job was not without a tremendous amount of danger, and Nick was wounded three times. These wounds did not stop Photojournalist, Pulitzer Prize Winner, World Press Photo of the Year, and of the National Medal of Arts this intrepid photographer as he pressed on. Nick photographed many of the horrors and atrocities of war but one photographic scene will live with him forever. On June 8, 1972, Nick was sent to a village about 25 miles northwest of Saigon called Trang Bang. Nick was on the road taking photos of the bombing that was taking place, when he saw children running towards him from the Village of Trang Bang. Nick was taking photos, but noticed a young girl who was coming – still burning from napalm – and she was naked. Her clothes had obviously been burned off of her. The film was processed by Japanese AP photographer Ishizaki Jackson. Nick and Ishizaki prepared a selection of photos send to the AP New York Office. The photo of this young naked girl was controversial, as frontal nudity photos were not allowed, and number 7 was rejected. However Horst Faas, Nick’s boss, argued with the bureau that the photo was too significant to not use and fought for its use. Finally, it was agreed by the New York photo editor, Hal Buell, that the photo of young girl would be used. The whole world then saw the photograph that Nick Ut had taken. This photo was of 9 year old girl Phan Kim Phuc, running down the road naked, burning from napalm dropped by the South Vietnamese Air Force on Trang Bang. Many believe it became a big turning point in efforts to end the war in Vietnam. It is a belief held throughout the world, even in North Vietnam. The photo depicted the horrors of the war with the anguish and pain inflicted on innocent children. Incidentally, two of Phan Kim Phuc’s cousins were killed in that bombing Nick Ut’s Interview, conducted by Robert Womack Robert Womack: Nick, first I want to congratulate you on your award of the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists, given in the United States. It was given to you by Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, which is a really big honor. It is the first time this award has been given to a photo journalist. Nick Ut: Yes, thank you. I was called to receive this award in March but because of COVID-19 it was canceled. Then rescheduled for January 13, 2021. A lot of people asked me why I would go and receive this award from President Trump. I tell them the award is for me personally and given to me by the President of the United States, sure I want to receive it. It is a great honor to go to Washington D.C. and get this award. I only wish I could have been there during the riots of January 6th to take photographs of the violence at the Capitol. RW: Well I am sure you were in more stressful situations than that, having been wounded in Vietnam while taking combat photos. However, violence did happen to you while you were there. Tell us about going to dinner the day after the awards and what happened to you. NU: I was walking with my friend Mark Harris to dinner, [and] a dirty homeless looking man came running fast and tackled me, knocking me down into some wire around a tree. I just didn’t see him coming it happened so fast. He hurt my ribs and leg but was able to walk. The man was quickly surrounded by secret service and police [in] less than two minutes, and taken away in handcuffs. This happened near the hotel close [by], but because of the lockdown [it was] some distance on [a] dark street.

RW: Was there any motive mentioned for this attack?
NU: No, it was random.
RW: Did you attend the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris?
NU: No, I arrived too late to get a pass but saw the parade. I took some photos.
RW: You have received many awards over the years; the Pulitzer Prize back in 1973, and now this National Medal of Arts. So Nick, which for you was your favorite that you treasure the most?

NU: Well, oh it has to be the Pulitzer Prize [in] 1973. That is just the biggest honor of all. Then I would say [it’s] followed by the World Press Photo of the Year 1972, and now this National Medal of Arts 2021.

RW: How did you get the name Nick?

NU: It was given to me by my close friend and fellow photographer Heri Huet. He always had trouble with my name as did others at the AP bureau. So he called me Nick or Nicky. Heri was killed after his helicopter was shot down. Heri had taken my spot on the helicopter that I was supposed to be on. Heri wanted to take my place on the helicopter because he wanted to go on R&R. It makes me sad to think about it.

RW: Your brother was killed while photographing the war. So you wanted to follow his footsteps and become a photojournalist too?

NU: Yes my brother Huyne Thanh My was a tall handsome man and an actor before he started working for the AP as a photojournalist. He showed his pictures to me all the time, and I knew I wanted to do the same thing. My brother taught me how to use the camera.

RW: Nick, you won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Horrors of War”, which is the one most just call “The Napalm Girl”. Can you tell me about what happened?

NU: We were sent to the village of Trang Bang not far from Saigon. We could see bombing and fire, and black smoke all around. At first we thought that no villagers were there. Aircraft were flying by dropping napalm, and coming from down the street in the direction of the black smoke were people running. A woman passed me carrying a child I think was dead. I took a picture of her. She said in Vietnamese, “My baby is dead”. Then other children, and this young girl comes running, and I am wondering why she is naked. Then I see she is still burning from the napalm. She is screaming in Vietnamese, “Nong qua, nong qua” (Too hot, too hot). So I pour water on her but then she says to stop. She wants a drink. I get a raincoat from a soldier and cover her because she is naked. I put her in my van, and took her and others to a small hospital in Chu Chi. She stayed on the floor of the van; she could not lay down because of her burns. The hospital says they have too many patients and they cannot take her, and [to] take her to Saigon. I say no, she will die before we can get there, she needs help now. They said her burns are too bad, she will die anyway. I show them my press card and tell them if they don’t take her it will be all over the news; with her photograph [and] that you would not take her. So they did take her. Later the little girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, was transferred to a hospital in Saigon where she stayed [for] over a year.

RW: So, did you believe you had a photo to stop the war?

NU: After I dropped her off at Chu Chi, I checked my camera rolls. My brother always told me he hated war, and [that] one day [he] would take a photo that would stop the war. This is that photo: number 7. So this photo is for my brother, who was number 7 of 12 children. I was number 11. Everybody tells me this photo stopped the war; it was number 7. So it is for my brother, number 7.

RW: Napalm is a horrible cluster of burning bombs. When I saw the photo of tiny Kim Phuc, I cried and still weep when I see it.

NU: When I saw the young girl screaming in pain running down the road I cried too. I knew I had to help her. President Trump knew of the photo and said he heard it stopped the war in Vietnam. I took him a framed copy signed by me and by Kim Phuc, “Napalm Girl”. I presented it to him at the award ceremony.

RW: I understand Kim Phuc lives in Canada now. NU: Yes she is married and has two children. We talk twice a week on the phone, so we keep close. She calls me Uncle Nick.

RW: I just ordered her book; an autographed hard copy “Fire Road”, about her journey from agony to peace.

NU: Kim has three books out I believe.

RW: So Nick, when did you get to the United States and became a U.S. Citizen? 1977?

NU: No, at the fall of Saigon [in] 1975, I left on a C141 aircraft to the Philippines, I was there for a few weeks, then to Guam. Then to the United States for a short stay at a refugee camp at Camp Pendleton. After that, [the] AP sent me to Tokyo, Japan; they had an office there. I became a U.S. Citizen in 1984 under Ronald Reagan. Then AP set me to Hanoi, Vietnam in 1989 to open an office and set up a dark room. I was real nervous about going there because I was afraid they would not like me because I was from South Vietnam. But they loved me there. People were always hugging me and telling me how I saved so many from dying with my photographs. Even U.S. ex-military living there talked about how I saved their lives by ending the war. There are lots of retired military living in Vietnam who have gone there to live and [have] taken wives.

RW: So what is your favorite place in Vietnam?

NU: Hanoi. The people are kind and the food is good, and everything is inexpensive. The country is beautiful, as all Southeast Asia is. But you know Robert, I really love the Philippines. It is so beautiful there. The people are warm and friendly. I met some really nice people there, like Manny Pacquiao – you know, Philippine Boxer. The food is so good, like the chicken. I just love it there.

RW: Tell us Nick, did you bring your wife and family from Vietnam or meet her here?

NU: I met my wife, Hong, who is Vietnamese, in Tokyo. Her office was next to ours. She spoke perfect English because her family is from the USA already. We have one boy and one girl, both married. The boy has one child and the girl has two. So now we have 3 grandchildren.

RW: You have done a good deal of photography in and around Los Angeles.

NU: Yes, I say I came from “Hell to Hollywood”. From taking photographs of the horrors of war to celebrities getting stars on the Walk of Fame. I have covered people like Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, Warren Beatty, and Paris Hilton. So many others too, and [I] have made many friends in entertainment.

RW: What is next for you? NU: I will continue to take all kinds of photographs. I like photographing animals and want to go whale watching out of Monterey, California.

RW: Do you want to mention any charities for this article?

NU: I am not rich man but I give what I can to children like those in Vietnam, that still suffer the war from Agent Orange and other children of the world who have been injured from wars. RW: Do you suffer from any of the effects of Agent Orange sprayed during the war?

NU: No so far I am lucky, but I have been to hospitals in Vietnam and seen those who do.

RW: I know Kim Phuc has a foundation that takes donations for children injured in wars everywhere, and a percentage of the sale of her books goes to those children. I will include a link to it: www.kimfoundation.com.



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