It’s difficult to explain to someone who has grown up in the world of digital photography just what it was like being a photo-reporter in the all too recently passed era of film cameras. That there was, necessarily, a moment when your finite roll of film would end at frame 36, and you would have to swap out the shot film for a fresh roll before being able to resume the hunt for a picture. In those ‘in between’ moments, brief as they might be, there was always the possibility of the picture taking place. You would try to anticipate what was happening in front of your eyes, and avoid being out of film at some key intersection of time and place. But sometimes the moment just doesn’t wait. Photojournalism – the pursuit of story telling with a camera, is still a relatively young trade, but there are plenty of stories about those missed pictures.
In the summer of 1972, I was a 25-year-old photojournalist working in Vietnam, where I spent two years trying to cover the events of that war. Some stories present themselves in more obvious ways than others, but as the U.S. began winding down direct combat roles and encouraging Vietnamese fighting units to take over the battle, there were moments when trying to tell that story presented enormous challenges.
On the morning of June 8th , I headed north out of Saigon with a New York Times reporter, Fox Butterfield. We were going to explore what was happening on Route 1, an hour out of town. We visited a small village that had seen some overnight fighting, but. were told by some locals that a few KMs north, there was a bigger battle going on. In the days before cell phones and text messages, this was the kind of tip you needed to end up in the right place. It was the village of Trang Bang – the kind of small scale battle that occurred all over Vietnam, in too many places, far too often. I waited and watched with a dozen other journalists from a short distance just out of the village, as round after round of small-arm and grenade fire signaled an ongoing firefight. I was changing film in one of my old Leicas, an amazing camera with an infamous reputation for being very difficult to load and as I struggled to align the film sprockets , a pair of Vietnamese Air Force Skyraiders – a WW2 propeller plane - came in low and slow and dropped napalm on what their pilots thought were enemy positions. As the planes made their passes I tried keeping up with them, making a few frames of the bombs just leaving the plane, and the smoke near the Pagoda from the ensuing explosions. Moments later, still struggling to load my camera, I saw in the distance faint visions of people running through the smoke. To my left, AP photographer Nick Ut took off running, heading towards the civilian victims who were running in desperation toward us.
In that moment, when Nick’s Leica came up to his eye and he made a picture of the badly burned children, he captured an image that would transcend politics and history and become emblematic of the horrors of war visited on the innocent. When a photograph is just right, it captures all those elements of time and emotion in an indelible way. There is 16mm news footage from that day, but amazingly, the impact of the film is far less dramatic than the photographs . Film and video tend to treat every moment equally, yet those moments are not equal. A true news picture is the distillation of what is happening, the one single moment when, for better or worse, things are explained in both an emotional and visual way.
Within minutes the children had been hustled into Nick’s car and were en route to a Saigon hospital. A couple of hours later I found myself at the Associated Press darkroom, waiting to see what my own pictures looked like. (A.P. served as the home away from home for many member newspapers, so when you needed a picture “wired” back to the home office, it was usually on the A.P. lines.). Then, out from the darkroom stepped Nick Ut, holding a still wet, copy of his best picture. In his hands, a small 5x7” print of Kim Phuc, running with her brothers, to escape the fire. We were the first eyes to see that picture; it would be another full day for the rest of the world to see it on virtually every newspaper’s Page One.
When I reflect on that day, my clearest memory is the sight, out of the corner of my eye, of Nick and another reporter, upon realizing what had happened, beginning their run down the road towards the onrushing children. It took another 20 or 30 seconds for me to finish loading my stubborn Leica, and I then joined them .. It was real life, unfolding at the pace of life.
.My own pictures from that day (one of which ended up being published in LIFE the next week) have lived in my archives for these 40 years like witnesses in waiting, hoping one day to add their version of history.
For some years afterwards, I wondered what had happened to all involved. Kim Phuc, the girl in the picture, after many years of painful surgery eventually left Vietnam to study in Cuba, and later, on a stopover in Canada, defected with her husband. They now live near Toronto, where she runs a foundation dedicated to helping children deal with the trauma of war. Nick Ut is still photographing for the A.P. in Los Angeles, creating new pictures every day.
I think often of that day, and of the unlikelihood of a picture from such a relatively minor military operation becoming one of the most iconic pictures from the entire war -- or any war. And since that day in Trang Bang, my sense of being “photographer ready” has never been more acute; the instinct has served me well in dozens of stories since. You never really know what is going to happen next. But anticipating what could
happen, what might
happen, those are the keys to being a great photographer.
In March 1979, having just returned days before from covering the Revolution in Iran, I found myself in a key “pool” position at the White House north lawn. It was the official signing of the Camp David Peace Accords, negotiated by President Carter, between Egypt and Israel. It was a historic day, with plenty of TV and photo coverage. I was carrying my own three cameras, plus one each from two other photographers, as I was given a good spot, head-on from which to see the three dignitaries--Carter, Begin and Sadat. Once they walked onto the outdoor stage, I began shooting. I shot madly as they signed the documents and passed the papers among themselves. And then, at the key moment, after they had all put down their pens, they stood up and embraced, hand over hand, all round, with gusts of wind fluttering the three giant flags behind them. As I grabbed for one of my cameras, I realized the roll was completely shot. I grabbed the next camera: same result. And then the third, fourth and last cameras. Panic. I was out of film in all five cameras, and even with motorized loading, was still at least 25 or 30 seconds away from being able to make a picture. I started whispering to myself….”maybe they’ll embrace at the end of the ceremony”…. and … “surely they will stop and wave, arm in arm together,” trying to wishfully convince myself that there might be more opportunities to come. Nope. Nothing of the sort. There were no more historic hand shakes. No more diplomatic embraces. It was over, and I had no pictures of that day which to me, spoke to the event itself.
These days having a small screen on a camera will help to let you know if you got “the moment,” or perhaps more importantly, if you missed it. But for those of us who come from the world of film, propelled by that gut check of wonder, the inconclusiveness inherent in shooting – but not seeing the results an instant later – gave us an additional bolt of energy, of determination to do more, and just plain creative worry. Did we have the picture? Or not? Often, when working overseas, it would be days before we had that answer. Being aware is what photography is about. Being able to see that bigger world, and your place in it. Today, 40 years on, if there is one thing which Nick Ut’s picture has taught me, it’s that there is a power, an immediacy, an accessibility in the single photograph which is unlike that of any other medium. And for those of us who walk along the sidewalks of history carrying our cameras for a living, it is comforting to know that even in today’s digitally overloaded world, a single photograph, whether our own or someone else’s, can still tell a story which rises above language, locale and time itself. And today, I try to always have a few frames of film left, and space on my memory card. Always. We’re just sayin’… David. a happier moment, reunited in Washington DC, 2009
cr: Hyungwon Kang
Very nice, David. That is why you are who you are, and that you've been where you've been... Skip
A great and poignant column of a time and with circumstances most of us aging PJs recall with a longing.
I always suffered from "film fear" in those days: the absolute conviction, until seeing the processed negatives, that something had gone horribly wrong and I had no picture, even though I knew I had exposed it correctly. I thought it was simply as symptom of personal insecurity, until standing at the Preakness chatting with other photographers, I discovered that they all had the same feeling.
Secondly, I enjoy pointing out to people that there is TV footage of both Trang Bang and the moment from Tet when Eddie Adams made his Pulitzer winner. They are always surprised. There's something about that frozen instant...
DB: re "When I reflect on that day, my clearest memory is the sight, out of the corner of my eye, of Nick and another reporter, upon realizing what had happened, beginning their run down the road towards the onrushing children."
Kinda gives me my own flashback to the LA '84 Olys, when Mary Decker fell. I was further down near the finish line when she fell, and just started hauling arse up the infield towards her. By the time I got there she was still on the ground, and I shot wide & tele shots of her crying etc from pretty close. Not bad. Then I saw your photos the next day or soon after from across the track. Uff da! Right place, right, time and READY to nail it, and you did. Bravo. Great shots, long lens, nice sequence.
You describe your Trang Bang day with grace and humility. I'm sure it was a a hard pill to swallow at times, but it can, and probably has happened to every film photog (damn Leicas!), Thanks for sharing the story, and I am happy your are hanging with Kim and Nick on some of these anniversaries!
DB: What a great post. Photography has always about capturing the moment. That image did that. Back in the film days we were faced with challenges digital photographers will never understand. Many times it was days or weeks before we knew what we had. It is really hard to believe it has been 40 years. On that day I was further up Route 1 in the city of An Loc. I was the first photographer "allowed" into An Loc. I worked for MG Hollingsworth.
Great piece David. I just don't see the same quality of "moment" shots today as we saw from you and your peers. Do you feel the same way?
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