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The Man Behind the Camera

August 20, 1989|PATT MORRISON | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer

THE PICTURES he took of Vietnam were black and white, but for years, Nick Ut looked through the viewfinder of his camera and saw red and black and orange and khaki. The colors of blood, and smoke, and fire, and soldiers. The palette of war.

Yet on a Thursday morning in June, 1972, when the Associated Press photographer shot a picture-- the picture that later won the Pulitzer Prize--it was of a child, not a soldier: a screaming 9-year-old girl named Phan Thi Kim Phuc.

And as the picture landed on newspaper front pages and ravaged the American conscience, the man who had taken it simply went back to work. For almost three years more, Ut followed the war and its warriors through the hills and marshes of his homeland.

He was in Saigon on the day it fell, April 22, 1975. His bureau chief told him " 'You have to leave the country--you have two more hours to tell your family.' " So he raced to bid his mother goodby. "I know she don't want to go, she's old. I tell her maybe I come back next month."

He and dozens of correspondents left in a jammed C-141. Ut took only some shirts and a camera case. He had seen the tides of war change and figured he'd soon be back. "We didn't know we lost whole country," he recalls. However, it would be not one month, but 14 years before he returned to Vietnam.

From the Philippines, Nick Ut was shuttled to Camp Pendleton, where refugees by the thousands shivered in tents in the cold spring coastal fogs. Ut took pictures of his fellow refugees, and within a month, he was transferred to AP's Tokyo bureau.

He met his future wife, Tuyet Hong, in Tokyo. She had been on vacation, stranded there when Saigon fell. Both were still refugees, and, having no passport, Ut could not leave Japan to cover a story. He worked as a general-assignment photographer in the city, covering sports, features and local news.

Two years later, he was in AP's Los Angeles bureau, where he continues his general-assignment work. "I love L.A.," he attests, and, recalling the frosts of Tokyo, "winter like in Vietnam." In another winter, this past January, he finally went home.

He returned to a country he had never really known--a united Vietnam, a Vietnam free of war. He shot 80 rolls of film of this new-old nation of his, and through his viewfinder, even the colors looked different: the pearl-soft mists rising from warm red earth, the cleansing green of new trees along the bomb-blasted roadsides, the pastel wildflowers lavishly twining among the treads of abandoned tanks.

Nick Ut arrived as he had left, an AP photographer--but American now, 38 years old, a husband and father, a man with few ties to the Vietnamese community of his new home. He was in Vietnam covering the saga of six ex-Marines returning to make their private peace.

Saigon bewildered Ut. Streets with new, sometimes Russian, names were empty of Jeeps and taxis. The raucous bars had vanished. Especially strange was its new name, Ho Chi Minh City. In his mind, it was still Saigon, all nervous clatter and shrill color and the edgy vitality of wartime. Not this shabby city.

An hour south of Ho Chi Minh City is the village of Long An, and Nick Ut is its most famous son. He didn't remember the path to his house, but he didn't have to; the village turned out to greet him.

Among Ut's seven brothers, one had a splendid surprise for him. For 14 years, he had kept about 50 of Ut's negatives--some taken on Route 1 the day the napalm went astray--hidden in a wall.

As the ex-Marines made their pilgrimages to the sanguinary landmarks of the past, Nick Ut made one of his own: to Trang Bang, where he had photographed Kim Phuc. He found the road, found the pagoda where the napalm had fallen. Neighbors who remembered "the napalm girl" told him she was in Cuba.

Her family had moved away, too. Only after Nick Ut left Vietnam did they see his picture in a Vietnamese magazine, and they sent him a letter. They told him they have no money to repair their bombed house.

Now, as then, the children of Vietnam affect him the most. He saw 5-year-olds as tiny and frail as toddlers, and thought of his own children, 7-year-old Bettina and 9-year-old Michael, romping through their clean house.

They have seen their father's pictures all their lives. The "napalm girl" is almost as familiar as their own faces, but why she is so important is a puzzlement. "They say, 'Daddy was in Vietnam,' (but) they don't know what I do. They say, 'Daddy, are you a soldier?' They ask me why the girl got burned; then I tell them about the war."

In Los Angeles, his children look at a picture of a burned girl. In Long An, his family stared for a long time at pictures Nick Ut had taken of Michael and Bettina. They are, his relatives told Ut, very lucky.

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