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How a Photograph Changes the World and Changes a Life

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If you haven’t read this remarkable op-ed by Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the young girl profiled in the famous picture above, you really should.

You’ve probably seen the photograph of me taken that day, running away from the explosions with the others — a naked child with outstretched arms, screaming in pain. Taken by the South Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut, who was working for The Associated Press, it ran on the front pages of newspapers all over the world and won a Pulitzer Prize. In time, it became one of the most famous images from the Vietnam War.

Nick changed my life forever with that remarkable photograph. But he also saved my life. After he took the photo, he put his camera down, wrapped me in a blanket and whisked me off to get medical attention. I am forever thankful.

Yet I also remember hating him at times. I grew up detesting that photo. I thought to myself, “I am a little girl. I am naked. Why did he take that picture? Why didn’t my parents protect me? Why did he print that photo? Why was I the only kid naked while my brothers and cousins in the photo had their clothes on?” I felt ugly and ashamed.

Growing up, I sometimes wished to disappear not only because of my injuries — the burns scarred a third of my body and caused intense, chronic pain — but also because of the shame and embarrassment of my disfigurement. I tried to hide my scars under my clothes. I had horrific anxiety and depression. Children in school recoiled from me. I was a figure of pity to neighbors and, to some extent, my parents. As I got older, I feared that no one would ever love me.

Meanwhile, the photograph became even more famous, making it more difficult to navigate my private and emotional life. Beginning in the 1980s, I sat through endless interviews with the press and meetings with royalty, prime ministers and other leaders, all of whom expected to find some meaning in that image and my experience. The child running down the street became a symbol of the horrors of war. The real person looked on from the shadows, fearful that I would somehow be exposed as a damaged person.

You will be glad to hear that she lives in Canada, is in her 50s, and is doing quite well. Of course this photograph was necessary. Perhaps only the photograph of the South Vietnamese officer executing the suspected spy did more in one image to turn global opinion against the war. But even when someone survives an attack like this and being exposed their whole life to what this photograph means, it’s a heck of a load to carry.

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