The power of photography was maybe never clearer than during the Vietnam war (1955 - 1975).
There are three pictures in particular that became iconic. They showed the human side of war, and the inhumane side of it. They showed the true horror that people endure and what kind of brutalities it makes people commit to other human beings. As the war dragged on, there was a growing movement of people who opposed the war. These pictures served as a powerful catalyst, and undoubtly helped end the war.
The Saigon Execution
This picture, taken by Eddie Adams, shows the execution of a North-Vietnamese man by a South-Vietnamese general. The day after this picture was taken it was on the front page of the New York Times, and the picture dominated the media for weeks, even months after.
This picture, showing a somewhat scrawny man with his hands tied behind his back, contrasted by the authoritarian figure of the man shooting him, illustrated that it wasn't just the North Vietnamese who were capable of senseless acts of brutality.
The Kent State shootings
By the time 1970 rolled around, the war wasn't only fought in Vietnam, but also on American soil. Millions of students had started protesting against the war, and that sometimes caused conflict with the police, or in some cases, even the National Guard.
During one of those conflicts at Kent State University, a Guard member shot at a group of protesters, killing 4 and wounding 9. The photographer described the event as follows:
"Wounded and dying people are laying all around me. Other people are pulling themselves up off of the ground. No one is going near the body. And then this girl, Mary Ann Vecchio,comes running up the street and kneels down beside the body. I started walking toward her. Her body was shaking... she was crying. And then she screamed- a God-awful scream. My reflexes took over, and that was it.
One frame that immortalized Mary Ann Vecchio's heart-wrenching grief. Suddenly the war coverage had changed: the media started to pay more attention to the protests at home, and in their coverage focused more on protester casualties and misdeeds by the police force. The protesters were no longer painted as draft-dodging hippies, unpatriotic cowards or vandalists, but as college-kids with a voice and with conviction, and they were getting shot and killed for it.
The napalm attack
On June 8, 1972, South Vietnamese airplanes dropped Napalm bombs on a village that had been occupied by North Vietnamese troops. Several of those who were hit by the napalm bomb were villagers, and Kim Phuc was one of them. She had torn off her burning clothes, and suffered severe burns on her back. Nick Ut, the guy who took this picture, took Kim to an overcrowded hospital. Initially they didn't want to treat her – they had their hands full with treating wounded and dying soldiers, but after Nick told them he was from the press, they helped her immediately. Kim's burns were estimated to be so severe that she would not survive.
The picture of the burned, screaming, naked girl would go on and become world famous. For Americans it was the final nail in the coffin for the public image of the Vietnam war. The war ended in 1975 and went down in history as the most disgraceful act of the American government.
"The general killed the Viet Cong;
I killed the general with my camera."
- Eddie Adams
Just because a picture says a thousand words, doesn't mean it's the truth. The power of pictures comes from our ability to interpret them, and to be able to identify with the people and the situations they portray. But sometimes that doesn't tell the whole story. Sometimes it even tells the opposite.
What we see when we look at the Saigon Execution is a defenseless prisoner being executed in cold blood. What is lesser known is that the man in the civilian outfit was wearing a disguise. He was an officer of the Viet Cong who used that outfit to murder unsuspecting soldiers and Vietnamese. He was responsible for the murder of several people, including the wife and six children of one of this targets, and he was on a mission to assassinate more people (including the general in the picture who shot him). The disguise proved to be so effective that it didn't just fool the people he killed, it fooled millions of Americans.
It can be debated whether that was a bad thing or not (after all, it was a lie that helped end a terrible war), but the picture's legacy would haunt the other man in that picture, general Loan, for the rest of his life.
A few months after the iconic picture was taken, general Loan became badly wounded in combat and has to have his leg amputated. After the war, he fled South Vietnam, and he was reviled wherever he went. An Australian hospital refused to treat him. When he fled to the United States, he was met with massive deportation attempts from Immigration Services, who used his picture as evidence of his amorality, although in the end they didn't succeed. He managed to open a pizza restaurant in Virginia, but after his identity became known it was vandalized and he had to close it. Loan was forced into early retirement and died in 1998.
The man who took the picture kept in touch with Loan and his family after the war. Despite the fact that this picture earned him fame and a Pulitzer, he says he regrets taking it, and he would have never sent it to the NYT had he known it would ruin this man's life. He apologised to Loan and his family for what he did, and they forgave him: he was only doing his job, and Loan was doing his'.
The story of Kim Phuc has a happier ending. She survived her burns, and is still alive today.
Kim Phuc and Nick Ut, one year after the attack
She and Nick kept in touch after the war, and remained lifelong friends. Kim calls him "uncle Nick", and they speak to eachother on the phone every week.
Kim Phuc went on and studied medicine, during which she met her husband. In 1992 they would ask for political asylum in Canada, and five years later she would pass the Canadian citizens test with a perfect score. She lives with her husband in Ontario and they have two children.
She ended up being a strong, positive force in this world.
In 1997 she founded the Kim Phuc Foundation, which provides medical services to child victims of war. Other foundations would be founded with the same name, under the umbrella organisation Kim Phuc Foundation International. She sometimes speaks in public about the power of forgiveness and how compassion and love has helped her heal. She has severe scarring and has suffered health complications from the burns for her entire life, but despite that she carries no contempt with her.
Kim Phuc and her son, Thomas.
"Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?"