Photography, ever since its appearance, has had a profound impact on the way we view the world. As Walter Lippmann once wrote: “Photographs have the kind of authority over imagination today, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that” (qtd. in Sontag 25). Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others examines the various and complex uses of photographs when depicting sufferings and atrocities. One of the most famous pictures during the Vietnam War, “The Terror of War”, by Nick Ut, demonstrates certain aspects of Sontag’s argument, namely the ability to reflect the appalling nature of war and impel us to take action. It also demonstrates Sontag’s concern about political manipulation of war photography.
Backed by logical reasoning and a diverse system of evidence, Regarding the Pain of Others asserts the profound impact of photography on how we view others’. It also calls into question the untrustworthiness of photography, which must be considered when looking at a picture. “The Terror of War” is a vivid demonstration of Sontag’s argument.
“The Terror of War” was taken on June 8, 1972 by Huynh Van Ut, professionally known as Nick Ut, a photographer for the Associated Press. More commonly known as “The Napalm Girl”, the image shows a naked 9-year-old girl running towards the camera, away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack. The Pulitzer Prize-winning picture epitomizes the crucial role of media and more specifically, photography in the Vietnam War.
The Terror of War by “Nick Ut”
One of the foremost uses of war photography is the actualization of war and its consequences. Sontag herself acknowledged photographs as “a means of making “real” (or “more real”) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore” (7). This holds true in the case of “The Napalm Girl”. The image, as gruesome and heart-wrenching as it is, lays bare the brutal and inhumane side of war. It visualizes the destructive effects of technology, in this case the Napalm bomb, when used as a tool of war. Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the subject of the image, was only one victim of these dangerous chemicals. The image of her, as Sontag asserts, “should not distract you from asking what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown” (14). It is also a reminder of what we, as human beings, are capable of doing to one another, sometimes even“enthusiastically” and “self-righteously” (Sontag 115). The Vietnam War is also the very first war to be broadcast on television worldwide. For the first time ever, people got to see with their own eyes the barbarity of war and the miserable life in the war zone.
The image also serves as an accusation of a serious breach of moral standards and a call for action. Although aimed at the North Vietnamese troops, the attack ended up killing and injuring more civilians. War does not choose its victim. Its consequences are felt, more often than not, by people who want nothing to do with it. When faced with such injustice, “one could feel the obligation to look at these pictures, gruesome as they were, because there was something to be done, right now, about what they depicted” (Sontag 91). But it did arouse worldwide sympathy and fierce opposition against warfare in Vietnam.
Photo by German war journalist Horst Faas
The effect of the picture continues to last long after the war has ended. It lives on to become a symbol of the Vietnam War itself. Sontag claims that “to remember is … not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture” (89). When the Vietnam War is put into perspective, two pictures will almost without fail appear in the back of our mind: one of the execution of a Viet Cong in Saigon taken by Eddie Adam, and the other of “The Napalm Girl”, by Nick Ut. The image of Kim Phuc trying to escape the effect of the napalm attack will remain a heartbreaking yet powerful symbol of the war. She represented thousands of other victims as a desperate cry for peace, and an indelible evidence of history. Her picture is now exhibited at various major war museums in Vietnam. All over the nation, children grow up learning through such pictures the inhumanity and atrocity done to the country and the people who sacrificed their lives for Vietnam today.
The picture also holds an aspect for which Sontag expressed her concern: political exploitation. It was said to have been used by the North Vietnamese government as a propaganda tool to prevent the U.S. Congress from providing military support for South Vietnam. Some protestors mistakenly referred to this as an evidence of the U.S. government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Who ordered the attack has been a subject of much speculation. However, it was the South Vietnamese troops, not the American, who did the launching. During this period of ‘Vietnamizing’ the war, America had withdrawn much of its troops except for some military advisors. Such misinterpretation has been observed by Sontag: “To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions” (10). She insisted that images today are “a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about” (85). Misunderstandings surrounding this image still exist until this day, especially in Vietnam, because that is what people believe, or want to believe.
This photograph was also taken by Fass, who won two Pulitzer Prize for his work in the Vietnam war
As the journey of photography continues, many images, like “The Terror of War”, will continue to exhibit their unique and at times illusive characteristics. However, it is imperative to acknowledge its immense significance while also accepting the limitations of this special medium. In a world where injustice is always present, such tools as photography are a much needed reminder of what we could do and must do. Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind that photographs, as trustworthy and objective as they appear, may also be a product of much manipulation and exploitation.
*If you want to read further analysis on war images, visit the word document here, written by Micah Zenko and Emma Welch: “Imagery and Atrocity”
By Uyen Tran