May 23, 2013

Meeting Kim Phuc: Student Voices Salvation and Damnation

In the forward of the book, The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong, she recounts an interview she did with George Esper, the last bureau chief of the associative press in Saigon, who describes the photograph in the following way: “It captures not just one evil of one war, but an evil of every war.”  Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph depicts a group of little children, and in the center of them is the nude, nine year old Kim Phuc - all of them running for their lives and close on the heels of them soldiers. In the background of them, we see exploded devastation. Is it possible to conjure up a more horrifying image? This is hell on earth. But at the same time, the little children in flight are alive. At least for now they have survived. No matter how wounded, no matter how scared, and no matter if everything in their lives is gone forever, they represent potential survivors. In one photograph, we see the worst of humanity and yet there is still hope evoked in the onlooker. A hope that the kids will survive, and a hope that despite all the havoc visited on these people that some good will come out of this picture. 

For Kim Phuc, the centerpiece of this masterful photo, the taking of the picture literally meant her salvation. On June 8th 1972 photographer, Nick Ut, witnessed the damage through his camera lens, and then he ran her to the hospital; thus, saving Kim’s life. Her burns from Napalm, which generates temperatures from 1500-2200 degrees Fahrenheit, were so severe it was thought unlikely that she would survive; yet, Kim Phuc endured, and eventually was released from the hospital. Nick Ut, her savior, continued to visit Kim until he left Vietnam.

The Girl in the Picture indicts not only our military action, but also our societal values. For example, Napalm was developed by a team of chemists at Harvard University. The fact that we use some of our brightest minds at the world’s alleged top university, to encourage the development of a weapon that sticks to the skin and burns it to the bone, is an alarming commentary on our society. When will we spend more money on educating people and feeding the hungry then we do on figuring out different ways of killing them?

In her own words, Kim Phuc stated: “For many years the picture controlled me.” The fame of the picture condemned her to the role of a living symbol, but led her finally to find the words behind the image- an image so strong it can strike one mute - depicting a moment of agony of a nine year old girl who grew up to be a voice for peace, for freedom, and for healing. In 1997 when Phuc established the Kim Foundation International she said: “ A photographer happened to be on the road that day…but I can never forget the thousands of innocent children who didn’t have their picture taken and didn’t get help. These are the children I want to help.”

Kim, I cannot thank you for suffering because there is nothing that can make sense of that. But, I can thank you for enduring so much and still allowing your heart to grow so much that the famous image of you has transformed into one of motion and action - running from a devastating past and into a hopeful future.

By Delilah Napier,
Harvard-Westlake School

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