SOME NEWS PHOTOS CHANGE HISTORY; MANY OTHERS record the making of history.
Having done photography along with reporting in my early days, I was always interested in news photography. Journalism books say a picture is equal to 1000 words. That was why in my book, ‘A Town Called Penury – the Changing Culture of Indian Journalism’, I had a chapter on photojournalists.
As I mentioned there, a photograph that played a major role in making most Americans oppose the Vietnam war and forced the US to abandon it, was of a 9-year old Vietnamese running naked with burns all over her body after US troops dropped a napalm bomb on her village.
The lensman who took that stunning black-and-white Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph is Nick Ut, who is retiring this month after 51 years with The Associated Press (AP). While some Indian cameramen were suspected to have caused some events (like protesters’ self-immolations) for ‘exclusive’ coverage, Nick put aside his camera and rushed the girl Kim Phuc and some others to hospital in the AP car to a hospital.
When doctors there refused to treat her as it was a serious case, he had to show his Press card and tell them that their refusal would be in the headlines next day. The doctors then saved her life. Kim, who became famous as ‘Napalm Girl’ is a 53-year-old mother of two and lives in Canada. She is still a close friend of Ut.
Ut captured many iconic images of the US atrocities in Vietnam though he was only 21 when he took that photo on June 8, 1972. The only photograph by an Indian lensman that comes anywhere near it is Raghu Rai’s haunting shot of the face of a little girl being buried following the Bhopal gas tragedy.
It was after the event. There were eyewitness accounts of people jumping over dead bodies lying by the dozen on the roads, killed by the poisonous gas leak from the Union Carbide (now Dow Jones) factory in Bhopal, but no haunting news photographs showing it.
Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’photo moved Americans to force an end to a cruel war. Raghu Rai’s photo did not move the then Congress governments at the Centre and in the State to prevent the escape of Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson from India.
Nick Ut, who had many a brush with death – escaping from a rocket literally by a hair’s breadth, a photographer friend going in his place to work dying when the helicopter was shot down. Then went from that “hell” to Hollywood and photographed almost every top star and the troubles some of them had, like a sobbing actor Robert Blake being acquitted of killing his wife or a tearful Paris Hilton being taken to jail for driving violations.
Of the many Indian Press photographers, only two – Raghu Rai and the late Kishore Parekh – would be in public mind for very long. The sons of both are following in their fathers’ footsteps. Hopefully, they will reach their heights. Nick Ut says he would keep taking photographs as long as he lived. He retired from AP, not from photography.
Whether he uses a pen or a camera, a journalist never ceases to be one.