On June 8, 1972, Nick Ut, a Vietnamese photographer for the Associated Press, snapped one of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War. Officially titled The Terror of War, the photo is known colloquially as “Napalm Girl” for its main subject: Kim Phuc Phan Thi, who is shown as a terrified, naked 9-year-old fleeing a deadly napalm attack.
This month, the famous photo turns 50. To mark the occasion, Phan Thi, now 59 and living in Ontario, Canada, wrote an essay in the New York Times reflecting on how the image has changed her life—and why it has resonated so strongly for so many years.
In the essay, Phan Thi writes that she has “only flashes of memories” of that terrible day. Before the attack, she remembers sheltering with her family and South Vietnamese soldiers in a Buddhist temple, per CNN’s Oscar Holland. When the soldiers heard their own army’s planes overhead, they told everyone to evacuate.
But to the planes above, the scared civilians looked like enemy forces.
“[S]uddenly, there was the fire everywhere, and my clothes were burned up by the fire,” Phan Thi tells CNN. “I still remember what I thought. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I got burned, I will be ugly, and people will see me different way.’” But in her essay, she writes that she doesn’t remember running down the road towards Ut screaming, “Nóng quá, nóng quá!” (“Too hot, too hot!”).
Napalm is an incendiary weapon—one that uses chemicals to produce heat and fire—that sticks to whatever it touches and causes severe, agonizing burns. When Harvard chemists invented it in 1942, they believed it would be used as a tool to burn down structures. In 1980, the United Nations banned the use of weapons like napalm against civilians, but these regulations don’t apply on the battlefield.
Phan Thi was severely burned, but thankfully Ut was there to attend to her after he took the picture. “When I took the photo of her, I saw that her body was burned so badly, and I wanted to help her right away. I put all my camera gear down on the highway and put water on her body,” he tells CNN. He then drove her and the other children to a nearby hospital.
Ut’s photo won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography and was named World Press Photo of the Year. While the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was already coming to an end (all troops would leave the country by 1973), the image became an indelible symbol of the horrors of war.
For a long time, Phan Thi struggled with being “Napalm Girl,” she writes. Her scars caused chronic pain and disfigurement that she tried to hide, and her widespread renown interfered with her private life. She wanted to become a doctor when she grew up, according to CNN, but instead she was pulled out of school and used as propaganda by Vietnam’s communist government.
As she got older, Phan Thi began to realize the power she wielded as the subject of Ut’s photo. She eventually founded the Kim Foundation, which provides aid to children affected by war. In recent years, the foundation has helped construct a library in Vietnam, an orphanage in India and pediatric facilities in Uganda.
Today, Phan Thi argues, photographs of horrific atrocities—from the violence in Ukraine to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas—serve the same critical purpose as during the Vietnam War. To confront violence head-on, she continues, “the first step is to look at it.”
“The thought of sharing the images of the carnage, especially of children, may seem unbearable—but we should confront them,” Phan Thi writes. “It is easier to hide from the realities of war if we don’t see the consequences.”