You know the picture. It’s a grainy black and white from 1972 Vietnam. A 9-year-old girl runs, crying, from a village that has just been napalmed, the clothes burned from her body.
Photographer Nick Ut won a Pulitzer for the image that so powerfully captured the human cost of war. I saw the photo just last month in Washington DC when I visited the Newseum, and got lost in their gallery of Pulitzer –winning photographs. As I stood in front of that particular image, I wondered…again…what became of the girl.
Last night I met her.
Her name is Kim Phuc, and she spoke at Blake School in Minneapolis. She is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, using her story of courage and forgiveness to encourage others to make a positive difference in the world.
As a photographer, I’ve often wondered how combat photographers maintain their sense of humanity in the face of such difficult circumstances, and I was moved to hear that on that day, Nick Ut captured the image, then set down his cameras to rush Kim to the nearest hospital where she spent 14 months in a burn unit.
She wanted to study medicine, so she could help others the way she had been helped, but her studies were derailed, she said, when the Vietnamese government decided to use her story as a propaganda tool. She eventually defected to Canada with her husband.
Kim found that for years, the more famous the photograph became, the less privacy she had in her life, and she simply wanted to retreat from the public eye and build a normal life. But eventually, she realized the power of the symbol and embraced it as a way to teach others about peace, love and forgiveness.
She said when that historic image was taken, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because of it, today she finds herself in the right place, at the right time, encouraging others to work for a better world. “While we can never forget the past,” she said, “we can choose to build a better future.”
Kim released herself and those responsible for the bombing through forgiveness, saying “peace, love, and forgiveness will always be more powerful than bombs.”
She encouraged the group, when they see the photograph, not to think of a child in pain, but instead, to think of a woman…a mother…who is working for a better world.
At the end of the evening, Kim stood on the stage, the iconic image projected large behind her, and said, “If that little girl can do it, everyone can do it.”
I think she might be right.