Escaping Vietnam: Kim Phuc and the inescapable photograph


Huynh Cong Ut’s 1972 photograph of Kim Phuc

Her picture became synonymous with the horrors of the Vietnam War, the victim with no name. But 40 years on, ‘the girl in the picture’, also the title of the book chronicling the story, speaks of how the image, 40 years old on June 8, haunted her and continued to plague her life beyond that iconic and fateful moment.

“I really wanted to escape from that little girl,” she says, “But it seems to me that the picture didn’t let me go.”

While these sorts of emotive images provoke viewers to consider social and political issues, there is a great deal of artistic work that goes into producing these images that in turn affects the subject in other ways. “I wanted to escape that picture,” she said. “I got burned by napalm, and I became a victim of war … but growing up then, I became another kind of victim.”

This sort of issue is not uncommon in photojournalism. Dorothea Lange, photographer of the notorious image ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936), was later criticised for her exploitation of Florence Owens Thompson, the migrant woman in the image. “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture,’ Thompson said. “I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

A paper I wrote last year published in the first volume of the Macquarie Matrix Undergraduate Journal discusses the problems and issues encountered in photojournalism, including Thompson’s case, the tampering of historical images, and contemporary war photography. It can be accessed here: http://studentjournal.mq.edu.au/Lyons.pdf

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