Once Upon a Time, On the road to Trang Bang village

Napalm Girl/The Terror of War by Nick Ut. 08/06/1972
Nick Ut’s provocative Pulitzer Prize winning photo taken in Vietnam, 1972 (Associated Press)

The photograph above, taken in 1972, stands to this day as one of the most influential images ever taken. It was also the photo that first catalysed my interest in photography.

The Vietnam war was raging when I was a child. The death count of American servicemen on the news was a daily ritual, as were reports of Agent Orange and napalm bombing runs. Also in the news were regular stories of civil unrest in cities in America and around the world as people protested the war. One day, I asked my father if what America was doing was OK. My father had sailed with the British Pacific Fleet when it fought alongside the Americans during WWII. Until recently, when even his faith in America had been shaken, he has held them in very high regard. His answer was that if the Americans where doing it, it must be OK. I guess that was that then.

Except it was not. Not long after, my father was sitting at the breakfast table reading the paper. Back in those low-tech days, before technology had sorted everything out for us, the newspaper would drop magically onto the doormat some time around 7.15 am with my father complaining about the paper-boy being late again. Right across the front page was a photo by a young Vietnamese man called Nick Ut, although it would be another ten years before I would know his name. That photo appeared on the front of half the newspapers in the western world, if not the entire world.

Nick, an aspiring professional photographer, found himself on the road out from Trang Bang village in south Vietnam. Bomber planes had flown over and one had dropped its payload of napalm onto people fleeing the village. Out through the pall of smoke and red flames people, children, came running, screaming, crying. He stood his ground and watched back towards the burning village, taking shot after shot, he resisted the urge to take cover.

The Napalm Girl was not the only tragedy that he captured on that reel of film, but it was the photo that would galvanized opinion across the world. Those mealy-mouthed decision-makers, influencers and pub politicians, the ones that called anybody who dissented Pinko’s, were marginalized.

Whenever I see that photo I imagine myself standing there with Nick, on the road from Trang Bang village. I like to believe that I know that moment. It has certainly influenced my own photographic journey.

A photo must have something to say about the human condition, even if people do not actually appear in it. All meaningful photographs are political. I do not mean that they are about Politics, but that they have a voice, a perspective, a purpose. They raise questions. They have a story. I can’t say that I have ever had my opinion swayed by a landscape photo, beautiful as some may be, but I have never looked at Nick Ut’s photo without feeling captivated by the moment. Then again, Nick’s photo would not sell boxes of chocolates.

I took a favourite photo some years ago, early one morning in the northern highlands of Ethiopia. I was walking along a car-less, dusty road away from the village of Ambe Madre. The morning haze had nearly burned away. Turning to look back towards the village I was surprised to see children standing in the road, silent and still, watching me like ghosts. A pretty girl, braver than the others, stood nearby, her younger brother in tow. She looked quizzically at me. Some way back along the road, on the escarpment, was a rusting tank. Its silenced gun turret fallen aside.

I raised my manual film camera and took several shots quickly, but when I took this one I knew this was it. An older Nick Ut might perhaps look at this photo and smile and say yes, I know that moment.

The ghosts of Ambe Madre
The children on the road to Ambe Madre, northern Ethiopia


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