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40 Years ago, Kim Phuc found heroes

Steve Russell - Staff Photographer - @RussellPhotos

It is an image that every photojournalist wishes that they had taken.

But what I find the most incredible about that moment in time captured 40 years ago is what happened after the picture.


In 2003 I was assigned to photograph the girl in the picture Kim Phuc. Kim now lives in Ajax and was going to be a speaker in the Toronto Star "Unique Lives and Experiences" lecture series. 

I was excited to photograph her. To look at her go from the little girl in Nick Ut's photo running naked and screaming down a road to establishing her foundation which provides medical and psychological help to child victims of war is inspiring.

I was very impressed with how she went from having nothing, her burns were so severe that doctors didn't think she could survive, to what she is today, author, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and mother.

In 2003 I photographed Kim Phuc, with her sons Stephen and Thomas. Kim credits religion and family in helping her cope with challenges.

As weird as it might seem, after taking that picture of her and her sons, whenever I feel a little down and I see Nick Ut's picture of that terrible day for Kim, I always think about how she rebuilt her life. Whatever trivial problem I have seems so small and large challenges that I might face don't seem as daunting.

Almost ten years after photographing her I had the opportunity to photograph her again, on the 40th anniversary of that picture. That moved me more that that first meeting with Kim. 

I learned that as strong as Kim Phuc was, she had a lot of help to get to where she is today. The dinner at the Royal York was her opportunity to thank her heroes. It was my opportunity to be inspired by them.

Nick Ut points out a tear that Kim Phuc missed. Forty years ago Kim Phuc was photographed after being caught in a naplam strike by Nick Ut. The photo won Ut the Pulitzer prize and helped Phuc. Several people other people that were instrumental in her life were honoured at the Royal York.

After capturing that moment, Nick Ut and other journalists near that village that day put down their cameras and began pouring water on Phuc. Ut took Phuc and some other children to a hospital in Saigon. Ut would visit her frequently until he was evacuated. 

Ut, who now works for the Associated Press in Los Angeles, and Kim Phuc still talk once a week.  

Kim's strength in that first meeting has always been inspirational to me. I used her as a role model. 

The second meeting opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of people helped her in her journey.

This morning when I looked at the picture from forty years ago I saw Kim Phuc and an army of new role models. 

Kim Phuc cups the face of nurse Martha Arsenault in her hands, 40 years after she was photographed after being caught in a naplam strike by photographer Nick Ut second from left.  Phuc honoured Ut and Arenault and more of her heroes including Murray Osmond, left, Christopher Wain, David Burnett and Perry Fretz at the Royal York in Toronto.  June 8, 2012. Read about her heroes - by Leslie Scrivener

Forty years ago Kim Phuc was photographed after being caught in a naplam strike by photographer Nick Ut. 

Nick Ut and David Burnett who were both on that road that day chat before the event.

Kim Phuc's mother Nu Phan hugs Martha Arsenault the nurse who cared for Kim when Ut brought her to the hospital.

Nick Ut describes the napalm explosions that day.

Nick Ut and Kim Phuc.

Kim Phuc with her sons Stephen, left, and Thomas.

The Kim Phuc Foundation 


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a truly beautiful woman (and story) emerge from a truly ugly war.

We, Bert and Gery from Holland, were glad to join the meeting in Toronto. It was a very special event. Lots of memories
and emotional moments.
It was great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

a wonderful set of pictures from a night which found joy out of pain and suffering so long ago.. many thanks

david burnett

I am a Punjabi Writer. I want a write a detailed story on Kim Phuc's life. I want to know more details about her village, its location, the children who ran for safety along with her, what happened to them, who are soldiers running along with the kids in the photo.
I shall be grateful if I can have all these details.
[email protected]
Let there be no wars. Let their be goodwill and wellbeing of all.
Warmongers are the biggest enemies of humanity.
Let us hope and wish for a peaceful world.

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