Nick Ut, photographer of the Napalm Girl Q. In your career as a photojournalist, you have covered wars, celebrities and sports. Is there a favourite you have among these subjects?
Image: Madhu Kapparath
It is just my job. But I love taking pictures of people. During the [Vietnam] war, I was in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I would take pictures of people, and what they have lost. After the war, I was in Tokyo for two years, when I photographed politics, business and sports, such as sumo wrestlers.
Then, when I went to America [in 1977], I was worried. Because I did not know anything about America. Then I began to shoot hockey, baseball, basketball… they are all American sports, and I could not say no.
When I arrived in the US, I didn’t know anything about Hollywood; I would just watch the films. And then suddenly I was photographing people like John Wayne and Greta Davis, and I would think to myself, ‘My God, I saw their movies, and now I am taking pictures of them’. Being in Hollywood is crazy; although I love Hollywood. Because of The Napalm Girl photograph, everybody knows who I am. The movie stars know me, and ask me to take their pictures. They say, “Nick we know you… you covered the war.”
Even when I covered US President Donald Trump, he pointed to me and said, “I know who you are.” But when I took a picture of myself with him, and put it up on Facebook, a lot of people told me, “Why him?”Q. What is it that you look for when you take photographs?
Every time I go on an assignment, I look for a story. I don’t start clicking pictures right away, I focus, look around for something happy or sad.
One of the best stories I covered was that of OJ Simpson, and Michael Jackson. Simpson was big in the history of America; there were hundreds of media people every day outside the court house. Nick Ut signs autographs at a felicitation event organised by Leica Camera in New Delhi
Image: Madhu KapparathQ. What are your views on war photography?
Most countries don’t like journalists in conflict areas. So many journalists have been killed in Syria and Iraq. One of the best photographers was Anja Niedringhaus from Germany, who worked for Associated Press. She was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. She had covered the Iraq war, and was covering Afghanistan. [In 2014] she was in a car, with a reporter, when a policeman shot them. There was no reason to shoot them.
I have a lot of photographer friends who want to go to war. But nobody pays a lot of money anymore. I tell my friends that they should do another job. Why do you want to kill yourself?
Moreover, nowadays there is nothing much to cover anyway, because the government controls the media. When I was in Vietnam, I had full freedom. I could take pictures of everything, nobody stopped me from going anywhere. The Americans wanted to see what was happening in the war, see it in the newspapers, and on TV. But today, in Afghanistan, they completely control the coverage. I was going to cover Afghanistan, when a friend told me, ‘Nick, this is not Vietnam’.
I covered the first Iraq war for a month. By the time the second started, I was married and had children. I could not go to a war and die, and leave them alone. So, if you are going to cover war, you should be single.
Today journalists travel with the armed forces, even though America does not allow many journalists. Although it is safer for them this way, it also means that they don’t have access to anything that the military does not want to show. Q. How much freedom do photojournalists have within the US?
The government controls the media a lot. If there is any incident, say a shootout, there is a lockdown over a 2-mile radius, and no mediaperson is allowed within it. So, if you want a good shot, you will have to fly over the area in a helicopter. I have to go to the top of tall buildings, with really big lenses to get photographs from almost a mile away. But you cannot get good pictures like that.
I want to show the loss that people have suffered, their faces. But you cannot go anywhere close to them. You don’t even get to see the bodies of those who might have been killed. When I moved to the US in 1977, it was not like this. But in another 10 years or so, things began to change.