W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Photographs’

‘Napalm Girl’ photographer defies backlash risk and accepts award at White House; is assaulted following night

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Media myths, Photographs on January 16, 2021 at 8:35 pm

Nick Ut, the award-winning photojournalist who took the  much-mythologizedNapalm Girl” image late in the Vietnam War, came to Washington, D.C., this week to accept an award from President Donald Trump. Ut risked intense backlash for sharing a stage with the soon-departed, and once-again-impeached, U.S. president.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

But Ut made clear he wasn’t deterred by the risks or the optics, writing in a first-person essay for Newsweek that “it was the happiest moment of my life” when Trump placed the National Medal of Arts around his neck. “I couldn’t believe the president of the United States was giving me a medal,” Ut added. “Everyone was applauding and congratulating me.”

The following night in Washington, while walking with a friend to dinner, Ut was physically assaulted and injured, saying in an Instagram post that his assailant was a “drug addict young guy” who “knocked me down and hurt my ribs, back and left leg.”

The attack took place a few blocks from the White House but seemed unrelated to his receiving the medal from Trump.

Ut, who is almost 70 and stands barely 5 feet tall, retired in 2017 after 51 years of taking photos for the Associated Press news service. He said in his Newsweek essay that he anticipated receiving “a lot of messages about accepting the award.

“But I don’t mind if anyone is angry because the award is for me personally, and it is from the President of the United States. He’s still the president. And this is America. We have freedom here. I never forget that.”

It was a notable statement in a troubled and censoring time, when such sentiments are not widely embraced or even welcome. Not after last week’s shocking assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, following a rally where the president reiterated his complaints about irregularities in the November presidential election. The Capitol assault gave rise to a snap impeachment vote in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday, the day Ut received the award.

Ut and Trump had met before, in Los Angeles, before Trump was elected president. Ut recalled in his essay that Trump “loved my picture of Vietnam. He said to me: ‘Nick, your picture changed the world.'”

Nick Ut, 2017

Ut was quoted in 2016 as saying Trump had made a similar statement, that the “Napalm Girl” photograph had been “responsible for ending the Vietnam War.”

Ut was reported then to have said in jest, “I couldn’t ask for a better agent” than Trump.

The presumed power of the “Napalm Girl” has been at the heart of tenacious media myths about the photograph, which showed a cluster of Vietnamese children fleeing a misdirected air strike on their village.

At the center of the photo was Kim Phuc, a 9-year-old girl whose clothes were burned away by the napalm. Thanks to Ut’s taking her to hospital soon after the attack, the girl survived her severe burns. She lives in suburban Toronto, having defected from Vietnam in 1992. She and Ut are frequently in touch.

The myths of the “Napalm Girl” include the notion — sometimes invoked by Ut, himself — that the photograph, taken in June 1972 during a napalm attack in what then was South Vietnam, was so compelling that it accelerated the end to the war.

But as I wrote in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “claims that the photograph hastened the war’s end are accompanied by little or no supporting evidence, and by little or no explanation about just how a still photograph could have exerted such an influence.”

I also noted that “Napalm Girl” exerted “no discernible effect or influence on the U.S. policy of ‘Vietnamization,’ of shifting the burden of the ground war to the South Vietnamese while dramatically reducing the U.S. combat presence in the country.” By early June 1972, about 60,000 U.S. troops remained in Vietnam, down from a peak of 543,000 troops in April 1969. 

The trajectory of the U.S. troop drawdown was “neither accelerated nor otherwise influenced by the publication of ‘Napalm Girl,'” I noted.

Moreover, the war did not end until April 1975, nearly three years after the photograph was made, when North Vietnamese forces conquered the South and installed communist rule there.

Despite the myths that surround it, “Napalm Girl” lives on as what I’ve called “an insistent statement about the horrors of war and its terrorizing effects on civilians.”

Even so, to argue that “a single still photograph was decisive to the Vietnam conflict,” I wrote in Getitng It Wrong not only “is to indulge in media-centrism; it is to stretch logic.”


More from Media Myth Alert:

The debunking of the year, 2009

In Debunking, Photographs on January 2, 2010 at 1:22 pm

The nod for the most impressive debunking of 2009 has to go to the Spanish researchers who’ve seriously challenged the authenticity of Robert Capa’s famed “Falling Soldier” image, taken during the Spanish Civil War in September 1936.

It purports to show a charging loyalist militiaman at the very moment he is shot to death.

Capa's iconic and dubious image (Robert Capa/Copyright 2001 by Cornell Capa)

The earnest research of a university lecturer in northern Spain, José Manuel Susperregui, as well as that of historian Francisco Moreno, show fairly persuasively that Capa’s photo was shot about 35 miles from Cerro Muriano, where Capa claimed it was taken.

Susperregui, who last year published Sombras de la fotografía (Shadows of Photography), a book in Spanish about his research, maintains that “The Falling Soldier” was taken in Llano de Banda, near the village of Espejo.

The most compelling evidence is the horizon, which shows a ridgeline that nearly matches that in Capa’s photos, which were first published in Vu, a French magazine.  (See the Vu spread here.)

“The landscape around Cerro Muriano looks nothing like that in the photographs,” the London newspaper Guardian quoted Susperregui as saying in  July 2009. “I have no doubt that this was taken in Llano de Banda.”

Susperregui was further quoted as saying:

“My theory is that Capa went to Espejo because he knew it had been an active front. He found nothing going on there, so did the posed photographs. Then he went on to Cerro Muriano, which was active, and took a different set of photographs there of people fleeing the fighting.”

The Guardian has posted an audio slideshow that vividly describes the landscape around Llano de Banda and dramatically underscores the arguments of the Spanish researchers. (It should be noted that doubts about the authenticity of Capa’s “Falling Solider” were raised as long ago as 1975, in Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty. Knightley’s account quoted an associate of Capa’s as saying the photographer told him the “Falling Soldier” photos were staged.)

As I wrote in a Media Myth Alert posting November 22, “the apparent debunking is a delicious one, given the status and standing that Capa’s photograph has gained over decades. It is considered among the most dramatic wartime photos ever made.”

Not only that, but “Falling Soldier” helped launched Capa’s fabled career in photojournalism. Capa was killed in Indochina in 1954.

The efforts of Susperregui and colleagues may not have received in the United States as much attention as they deserved. But they’re imaginative and intriguing — and they represent the debunking of the year 2009.


Catching up: Will on Capa

In Furnish the war, Media myths, Photographs on November 22, 2009 at 4:50 pm

I caught up today on several back issues of the Washington Post, including last Sunday’s edition, which carried an insightful column by George Will.

Will himself was catching up on intriguing research that challenges the authenticity of Robert Capa’s famous photograph of the moment a bullet strikes and kills a loyalist militiaman in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.

Capa's iconic 'instant of death' photo (Robert Capa/Copyright 2001 by Cornell Capa)

Will notes that a Spanish historian “has established that the photo could not have been taken when and where it reportedly was — Sept. 5, 1936, near Cerro Muriano.

“The photo was taken about 35 miles from there. The precise place has been determined by identifying the mountain range in the photo’s background,” Will writes, adding that the historian “says that there was no fighting near there at that time, and concludes that Capa staged the photo.”

The historian is Francisco Moreno and his research into Capa’s iconic image received a fair amount of attention over the summer. According to the Associated Press, Moreno determined that the shape of hills in Capa’s photo matched a hillside just east of the town of Espejo.

This is not necessarily a media-driven myth — stories about and by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close examination, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated; they often promote a misleading interpretation of the power and influence of the news media. Few media-driven myths rest on outright fraud, which may have been the case here.

Still, the apparent debunking is a delicious one, given the status and standing that Capa’s photograph has gained over decades. It is considered among the most dramatic wartime photos ever made.

As Will correctly notes, its “greatness evaporates if its veracity is fictitious.”

Capa was a skilled war photographer who was killed in Vietnam in 1954. He supposedly maintained:

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Now that’s a great quote: pithy, telling, instructive. Like other memorable quotes in journalism (such as “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war“)  it  seems almost too good, too neat and tidy, to be true.

I’ve done a bit of research into the derivation of Capa’s quote. And I have never been able to determine when and where he uttered that line.


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