The Photographs That Trapped History in a Filmstrip

     Trang Bang, 25 miles west of Saigon. The Vietnam War is raging. South Vietnamese planes, loaded with napalm (a sticky, flammable, petrol-based gel), fly low over the land, raining fire down on the enemy they share with the United States: Communist powers. But one plane misses. Embedded journalist for Associated Press, Nick Ut (Huynh Cong), watches in horror as the allied residential village he was photographing becomes a terror scene. The napalm burns away women and children’s clothing and outer layers of skin in mere moments. Screams and thick smoke fill the air. The streets are wet. The survivors swarm toward him, arms outstretched and mouths gaping, begging for help. One 9-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, is completely naked. It is suddenly explicitly clear to Ut what has happened: she has gotten the worst of the napalm. Her eyes are clenched and her body is patched and bleeding. She is perhaps no further away than seven feet when he decided to snap the photo. “She said, ‘Too hot, please help me.’”

He drops his camera and pours water all over her, then rushes her to the nearest hospital in his own personal vehicle. The photo is later recovered and goes on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, before ending the war itself shortly after in 1975. Ut credits this to the inherent empathy people have for children and how many adults can visualize their own children in similar situations. The fact that the girl wasn’t even the enemy could only help the case. 

     And what of a simple high school in Chicago–1982?  John White’s Pulitzer photos may lack the shock value of wartime images, but they have an irreplaceable timelessness to them. A young teenage boy sprints past onlookers and parents in long overcoats. This inner-city school doesn’t have a track–this kind of meet is all he knows. He shoots them a quick glance, making a tight corner around a ceiling support beam. His mouth is open, gasping for air, and his muscles are visually strained. His right leg has landed on the tile floor below his feet with intensity, forming a hard 90-degree angle. His arms maintain the same pose. He could be any teenage runner. Within minutes, he’ll probably be in the same hall he’s leaving in the dust now, discussing the indoor meet with his teammates, congratulating them on a race well run. And in 20 years, his son may look back on these photos and see himself in them. These Chicago schools and kids may not have a lot of money, but they do have a lot of heart and determination.  And White has captured it. 

     And finally, the Tanzanian border, 1998.  Martha Rial sits with a group of Burundian refugees who have successfully made the trip across. They have just arrived and are seeking immediate medical attention. A young woman in tattered clothes carries her newborn baby on her back.  He is only 4 months old. He is severely malnourished, and his eyes are filled with fear. Veins protrude around his forehead. Rial snaps the photo. She is fascinated by the children and their parents and believes that putting a human face on migration changes the international conversation around these victims. No child that young should have seen things that could elicit that expression.  Rial knows this, and she knows it will influence people. And it did. The photo won a Pulitzer shortly afterward. 

     These photos were all more than deserving of their place in history. The Pulitzer is a great journalistic honor, and for any winner, it’s a moment that will live in their memory the same way that their photos will live in eminence. LIFE Magazine wrote it best: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” And that is exactly what these images have captured. What better exemplars could we ask for?