Nick Ut Announces Upcoming Retirement: “Nicky Didn’t Go To The War, The War Came To Him”

Phan Thị Kim Phúc and Nick Ut
Phan Thị Kim Phúc and Nick Ut

By Donald R. Winslow

ATHENS, GA (July 12, 2016) - Legendary photojournalist Nick Ut has announced his upcoming retirement from The Associated Press after 51 years. The kind, funny, gentle and greatly-admired photographer who has been a friend to so many photographers around the world, as well as a mentor, and teacher, and ambassador for global peace, posted his retirement plans today on Facebook.

Ut says that now that he’s 65, he wants to retire.

“I shipped all my AP cameras to New York,” Ut told News Photographer magazine tonight. “After 51 years I have a lot of vacation time to take before I retire,” he said with a big laugh. “I’m going to be taking a lot of days off until the end of the year.”

Ut says he’s retiring from AP but he’s not retiring from photography.

“I am going to travel a lot, and do workshops, and go everywhere,” he said. “I love the AP so much. They have been my family since I was 14 years old in Vietnam, and Horst Faas and Eddie Adams came to my family home for dinner."

Hal Buell was running AP photographs globally in New York City back in the mid-1960s when Ut was a “local hire” in the Saigon bureau. Horst Faas and Ed White were running the bureau and brought UT into the fold.

“Nick’s older brother Huynh Thanh My was killed, he was an AP photographer and he had been an actor and then a CBS sound man,” Buell remembers. “Huynh Thanh My had Nicky and a sister come to live with him in Saigon because he thought it would be safer for them than living out in the delta. Then Huynh Thanh My was killed in action, and Nicky and his sister came to AP looking for a job. He was only 16 years old and there was some reluctance to hire him because as much as we wanted to help the family, and another older brother who was a Vietnamese soldier had been killed, AP didn’t want to be in a situation where yet another member of their family might be killed.”

Buell said Faas and White decided Ut would be safer in the AP darkroom. So they hired him to develop film and make prints. “Of course at some point, Nicky learned how to use a camera and eventually he went around Saigon on a scooter making pictures, and he made some pretty good pictures for (AP’s) Peter Arnett, that got some notice, and he was on his way.”

Another AP photographer in the Saigon bureau took young Ut under his wing, becoming a friend, a brother, a mentor, and a guardian for the diminutive new lab man. That photographer was, of course, Eddie Adams. A friendship that started there in Saigon lasted a lifetime for both men. Before Adams died in 2004, Ut says, Adams gave him a limited-edition special print of Adams’ iconic photograph, “Saigon Execution.” Ut told a late-night gathering of photographers in Adams’ barn in upstate, rural New York, in the midst of one of the Barnstorm Workshops, that Adams had said to him when he gave Ut the print, “Here, Nicky, you might need this someday.”

“Nicky didn’t go to war, the war came to Nick,” Buell remembers. It was the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Vietcong swarmed the city in a bloody multiple-day battle that cost the Americans many lives and marked a turning point in the war. By some estimates more than 58,000 died by year’s end.

“So there Nicky was on his scooter going all over Saigon, and all of a sudden he was a war photographer,” Buell says.

Ut remembers, “Horst tried to stop me, to keep me in the darkroom, but I wanted to go out shooting. Finally Horst said, ‘I cannot stop him, let him go.’ One time I got hit by a rocket, and Horst, he worried so much, he said, ‘Nicky, I don’t want you to die,’ he didn’t want someone else from my family to die. But after two weeks, he let me go out to shoot again.”

And then there was the most famous picture, “Napalm Girl,” with little Phan
Thị Kim Phúc. Running down Highway #1, burned from a Vietnamese Air Force napalm drop that missed its target and struck her family’s village, and where they were hiding inside a temple for safety, the little girl and Ut met for the first time moments after he photographed her in a picture that would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and define, for many, a searing moment in the global consciousness about the Vietnam war. Back in the States people from the White House down to factory assembly lines were forced to face the stark reality.

As the world now knows, Ut’s actions saved Kim Phúc’s life and she grew up calling “Uncle Nicky” her guardian angel until, as an adult – married with two children – she became a United Nations Ambassador for Peace, traveling the world with Ut telling their story and the story of the utter futility of war.

Which, Ut said tonight, is going to be happening with more and more frequency, now that he has the time to travel and speak and teach.

“I love AP,” he said once again, as if to reflect. “They are my family, all over the world.”

Somehow we know, we haven’t seen the last of Nick Ut or his travels, or the many beautiful people he poses with for photographs all over the globe. Just “friend” him on Facebook if there’s any doubt.