We're Just Sayin'
Closing the Circle
May 2009

by David Burnett

I have been a photographer since my junior year in high school. I originally joined the yearbook staff ("the Olympian") in an attempt to broaden my "extra-curricular" activities, something my mom advised me was key to getting into college. Even the Sputnik generation needed more than simply good grades to land a proper school. In the end, while the CV adornment was only partially successful – I was turned down at Stanford and Pomona, though, happily, accepted at Colorado College – my experience in the Olympus High School darkroom was transformative. Watching that first print, a simple white sheet of Kodabromide paper, bathing in the developer, become a photograph of the French Club, I was mesmerized. It had an air of alchemy, mystery, magic. I was hooked, and literally within months, I would take that school-owned Rolleiflex and shoot Friday night basketball pictures which I'd try and sell for five bucks to the Salt Lake Tribune. (The key was, of course, to go to games where the Trib didn't send their own staffer!) That was 46 years ago. I find it hard to believe that my own life has spanned such an integer. Like most baby boomers, I still "feel" about 32 or maybe 39 on a day of fatigue. Maybe it's the fact that I have been lucky enough to make the thing I love doing the principal source of bill paying. That is, work has never really been 'work.' Even what we refer to as 'crap' assignments bring something potentially interesting or exciting. I look at those jobs as an opportunity to try out some new technique or idea. I'm not a Pollyanna: I know which jobs are crap and which aren't, but I think I've figured out over the long run how to take them in stride, and yet keep my artistic juices flowing.

Sometimes I wish I'd actually had a little more historic view of our times. A way of putting my pictures into some kind of long-term flow, or context. There are folks in my business who are able to focus, literally, on very precise and targeted projects. I guess I'm sort of a photo-slut: there are very few jobs which come my way which I don't get at least a little bit enthusiastic about. But perhaps the thing I wish I were truly better at is the long-term follow-up. American Photo magazine once described me as having "been everywhere, but only for an hour." A slight exaggeration, to be sure, but not without a ripple of truth. So many places in which I worked in my early career – projects which became significant parts of my life's work – remain unrevisited. Chile in 1973, West Africa in 1974, Eritrea in 1977, Iran in 1979. I never managed to revisit, and take a second or third look at the aftermath of those stories. Somewhere in my inner decision-making secretarial pool, on a mental corkboard, I have a long list of places I'd like to return to, people – anonymous to me then and now – who I would love to meet again. I was always terrible at getting names – the pathology of not having worked for a daily paper or wire service. And yes, time is ruthless: none of us gets out of here alive. And in so many of my pictures, the desire to see people again is rubbed out by the passage of people in the intervening years.

The picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, with his inner circle, having tea in Tehran just days after his return from exile, is a case in point. None of the people in the room in this picture are still alive. I spent two months in Iran during the Revolution in 1978-79, but haven't been able to get a visa since then to return to the scene, now 30 years later, of these historical events. It remains a big void in my life as an historian.

Just after the coup d'etat in Chile in 1973, I photographed a young man who had been rounded up at university, and was going to be held for months before being released. His life changed that day, and so did mine. The picture ran in many places, and helped bring the face of the Chile coup to viewers, especially in Europe. Yet only a couple of years ago, when a Santiago newspaper ran a story asking "Who is this man?" did we finally find out who he was. Part of me didn't want to know the answer to that question, fearful that he had been killed as so many were. But within days, friends of his contacted the paper and said that it was "Daniel Cespedes -- the man in the picture." An article with that title ran in the paper, and 30 years later, we learned that he had survived his ordeal and was living south of the capital. I still haven't been to Chile since then, a desire I keep sublimating to other more current demands.

But as this is one of the rare times when an unknown subject becomes known, I feel I need to close that circle. In fact, once Daniel was discovered, it made me ponder the idea that perhaps it would be possible to find some of the many people who unwittingly became subjects of my pictures at some random moment in time.

The loving mom at the Ethiopian camp. The mother and child in the Cambodian refugee camp. Even a grunt helping to fix a tank at Lang Vei, Vietnam, ca. 1971.

All of them make me feel there ought to be some way, unlikely though it sounds, of catching up with these people 20 or 30 years later.

On Tuesday night, March 3, I closed one of those circles.

In the summer of 1972 I was still living in Vietnam. I was freelancing in what might have been referred to as the good 'ole days. Many magazines, not so many photographers, and if you found an editor who liked you, there were lots of possibilities for work. One day I took an assignment with The New York Times, to travel with their reporter, Fox Butterfield, and see what the action was up Route 1 towards Tay Ninh, just north of Saigon. It was following the spring of the North Vietnamese "Easter Offensive" and they were maintaining pressure on a number of vital places throughout the country. Tay Ninh, a mere hour or so from Saigon, and supplied through Cambodia, remained one of those areas. Firefights and small skirmishes happened on a regular basis all summer. Fox and I headed north on Route 1, and late morning found ourselves in a small village still smoldering with the effects of a battle the night before. This was long before the days of cell phones and Blackberrys, so there were no obvious ways of finding out what was happening other than to make a few phone calls to a military information desk, which was occasionally helpful, and just get in your car and drive. In the early afternoon we headed further north, shortly coming across a group of our colleagues massed on the edge of a small village, Trang Bang. There were all the audio accompaniments -- the sounds of battle: rifle fire, the explosion of RPGs and grenades, and the occasional 'whump' of a mortar. We were on a small road about a quarter-mile from the village, waiting to see how the battle, between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese troops, would play out. I was working with a slightly different mix of cameras that day. In an attempt, I suppose, to take myself more seriously (don't read all those photo magazines, people!) I had taken my two Leicas. I owned two very used cameras, in addition to my Nikomats: a wonderful Leica M2 which I still use, and a Leica Model III (about 1946) – a knob wind, screw mount of the early variety which, while capable of taking good pictures if you had a sharp lens on it, was prone to quirky loading and film-transport problems. But I know that in my mind, I was thinking, "Today I will be Cartier-Bresson." Of course when the real photographic moments arrive, trying to "be" anyone else is always problematic. You need to just take your own photographs, in your own way.

We had been lingering on the edge of battle in this small village when a droning noise came out of the distance. Two A-1 Skyraider planes, with Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) markings, started circling Trang Bang. After a couple of passes they began diving towards the village. I had finished the first roll of film in my Leica III, and had started to reload. The planes came in, lumbering along as they do, and dropped big canisters of napalm. Moments later there was a fiery explosion, and a large fireball erupted on the edge of the village near a pagoda, followed by billows of dark smoke. I was still struggling to slide the Tri-X into my Leica, with one eye watching the planes and one on the camera. The planes made a couple of passes, the film still resisting to go into that narrow loading slot on the Leica. Then, all of a sudden, everything changed.

At the end of the road, we could see some kind of movement coming out from the smoke. It looked like a small group of people, who reached the road, then turned and started running towards us. To my left, Nick Ut, the AP photographer, and Alex Shimkin, a tall, lanky Newsweek stringer, both understood what had happened and immediately began running down the road towards the village, and the oncoming villagers. Within a few seconds, I got my camera loaded, the back closed, and started down the road myself. By then, the moment had passed. That picture which became the iconic image of the war, was in Nick Ut's camera. The crying children, running from the flames, had made it to where the cameramen were, and for a moment were waiting, wondering what to do next. The little girl in the picture, who had torn off her burning clothes, was having a canteen of water poured on her burns in an attempt to cool them off. Then a few seconds later, the children began running again, up the road to where the press vehicles were parked. That moment was over, literally in a moment. There was no lingering. It was the horror of life, happening. Within another minute or so, out of the distant smoky mist came a man carrying a woman on his back, and a minute after that, an auntie carrying the lifeless body of a burned baby. It was, in fact, a scene which had played out hundreds of times in Vietnam over the preceding decade – innocent villagers caught up in one sort of cross fire, or another.

Within a few minutes, Nick guided the burned children into his car and headed to the hospital where he made sure they would be looked after. Then he headed to the AP, where I was on my way, all of us to process our film. AP was the basic lifeline for daily press who were working in Saigon. If you needed films processed, prints made, and images to be sent over the wire to New York, AP was the hub. I'd dropped my films off and was waiting to see what I had. I will never forget the moment when Nick came out of the darkroom, holding that picture for the first time, a wet 5"x7" print, in his hands. Ours were the first eyes to see it. That summer Horst Faas, the two-time Pulitzer winner who had spent years in Vietnam, was back and in charge of the picture side of the bureau. Well, even if he weren't technically the chief of the picture side, wherever Horst went, he was in charge. There was a transcendent moment. Horst, a big rugby player of a European, and Nick Ut, a slight, unassuming Vietnamese, coming together again at a focal point of history. We all looked at Nick's picture. "Well," I thought, "that is way better than anything I have." Horst paused a minute, and said in his most authoritative Germanic accent, "You do good work today, Nick Ut." It was a profound compliment. Discussions ensued for some time about whether the picture could be put on the wire since it involved "nudity" though clearly no rule ever written had this picture in mind. And in a matter of 24 hours, the photograph went from being viewed by our dozen eyes in the AP office, to tens of millions around the world.

But, what of the children? The girl, Kim Phuc, spent months in rehab before finally getting to return to her village. She received medical help along the way, including from foreign medical teams in Vietnam, and eventually, as she came into adulthood, traveled to Cuba for study. Once there, she met and married another Vietnamese student, and a couple of years later they defected to Canada, where they live today. She has a foundation, the "Kim Phuc Foundation International," which is dedicated to helping child victims of war get the help they need.

Finally, the other night, I got to see her again after nearly 37 years. German television, which it must be said, remains unafraid to spend money to create great work, had assembled a crew in Washington and arranged for Nick and Kim Phuc to come to town for an interview. I, as someone who happened to be on Route 1 that day, was interviewed as well. And on March 3 we all met again in Georgetown. With a small light illuminating us from the TV camera, we walked in the Washington chill across M Street for half an hour, speaking of that day, of the times since, Kim's children, and how we felt about the reunion. I've seen Nick a number of times over the years, but to walk, the three of us, and try and bridge all those years was very satisfying. I wanted to make a picture of Kim Phuc and Nick. I'd hoped to do it earlier in the day, in the beautiful light of a fading afternoon, but their planes were late, and we ended up shooting in the hotel cafeteria. It wasn't a 'crap' assignment. But trying to make a picture which holds those 37 years together is not easy. Not as satisfying, perhaps, as simply knowing we are all alive and able to embrace.

(Photo: ©Hyungwon Kang)

Kim Phuc radiates a kind of warmth and understanding which can only come from pain. But she has risen above her pain, and now tries to counsel others on theirs. Simply by example. The world has moved on. Ten years ago I returned one afternoon to Trang Bang while on a trip to Vietnam. But, having been drawn there, I didn't know what I thought I would find, or even what I was looking for. Here, where the bombs had fallen and children had run in fear, lay a bucolic countryside. Serenely beautiful Vietnamese schoolgirls, their ao-dai dresses fluttering in the wind, drove by in what seemed like slow motion on their motorbikes. Three-wheeled trucks carrying produce buzzed like yellow jackets on the highway. In the distance the quiet of the village and its pagoda seemed to have forgotten what happened on that June day in 1972. And maybe for a moment that was all right. Spending that evening with Nick and Kim was a little step to helping me close that circle. We're just sayin' ... David

Just got the film back (it does take longer than digital ... ).

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© David Burnett
This 'blob' entry by David Burnett, renowned photojournalist and longtime chronicler of Washington, was originally posted on Saturday, March 7, 2009. To read more of his musings, visit his site: http://werejustsayin.blogspot.com.