By Jim Poling Sr.
From Shaman’s Rock
Working in the news industry can be depressing. It is work that draws much criticism and little praise.
The men and women who gather and report news get blamed for all kinds of stuff.
Politicians blame them for ills that they themselves create. The general public criticizes them for publishing stories and photos that show terrible things.
Take for instance the 1972 news photo of a nude nine-year-old girl running screaming down a road in Vietnam during a napalm attack. Her clothes were on fire and she tore them off, screaming. Nóng quá, nóng quá (“too hot, too hot”).
A frontal photo of a nude young girl burned and screaming is not something any person should want to see. It was an indecent photo that caused controversy and criticism.
Many have viewed it over the years and many more are seeing it now because June 8 was the 50th anniversary of its taking by Nick Ut, a 21-year-old photographer working for The Associated Press.
Pope Francis has seen it. Ut presented him an enlarged copy of the photo during an audience last month.
Yes, the Napalm Girl is a repulsive photo, but it is one of the most important news photos ever published. It captures the senseless cruelty of war, and the suffering it brings to innocent people, especially children.
That photo, plus other photos and news reports of the horrors of Vietnam, helped to change American public opinion about the war, which led to decisions to end it.
The story of the Napalm Girl did not end with the war. Kim Phuc, the little girl, suffered many operations and years of therapy and later defected to Canada. She now lives in the Toronto area.
As an adult she helped establish the Kim Foundation International, a non-profit organization dedicated to help heal innocent child victims of war.
Today she says showing photos of violent carnage, including the children and teachers slaughtered at Uvalde, Texas, seems unbearable. However, she wrote in the New York Times last week:
“ . . . but I think that showing the world what the aftermath of a gun rampage truly looks like can deliver the awful reality. We must face this violence head-on, and the first step is to look at it.”
Fifty years after the Napalm Girl photo was published, other gruesome photos are appearing in newspapers and on television screens. One of the most gruesome shows a mother and her two children lying bloody and face-up dead in a Ukraine street.
That photo was taken by American freelance photojournalist Lynsey Addario. She was photographing people fleeing Russian attacks when a mortar exploded, killing the mother, her teenage daughter, eight-year-old son and a friend.
“I’m thinking as horrific as this is, I have to document this because I just watched a mother and her two children get hit intentionally,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in an interview.
Some might say it is obscene to show a mother and two children lying dead in a street.
Or, a screaming nude girl fleeing a napalm attack. Or, a two-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Mediterranean beach, one of thousands of refugees drowned while fleeing a life of repression in the Middle East.
The news media has a social responsibility to tell important stories that some people might not like to hear or see. It is not its job to shield readers or viewers from humanity’s ugliness.
“We all do this work in order to have an impact, in order to affect policy, in order to educate people – to show the reality on the ground,” says Addario.
News and information give life to democracy. They are like air – not always totally clean, but necessary for life.
Horst Faas, the Associated Press photo editor who approved publication of the Napalm Girl photo, once said it is necessary to publish photos of graphic violence because “pain keeps you conscious.”
There is much pain in pictures of people, especially children, suffering and dying. But they are necessary pictures that should never be put to rest.
Hopefully, the gruesome photos coming out of Ukraine continue to live in our heads, causing us enough pain to do whatever is needed to stop that inhumane war.