EVERY OCTOBER FOR EIGHT YEARS now, 100 aspiring photographers have gathered at Pulitzer Prizewinner Eddie Adams’s workshop in Upstate New York. For four days they shoot rolls of film, get their work reviewed by pros and listen to their heroes discuss their craft. On Oct. 8 this year’s contingent hung on every word as another Pulitzer-winner, Nick Ut, 44, told how, on June 8, 1972, as an Associated Press photographer in Vietnam, he took his famous shot of a 9-year-old girl running naked down a street in Trang Bang after a U.S.-di-rected napalm attack. The novice photographers were fascinated by Ut’s story, but their reaction paled beside that of a 32-year-old Vietnamese woman in the audience who averted her eyes and sobbed as Ut showed his slides. The woman was Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the little girl now grown up.
Phan wasn’t the only famous photo subject in the room. Adams, 61, who may be best known for his award-winning picture of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head, also invited Mary Ann Vecchio, 39, who was immortalized by photographer John Filo 25 years ago as she grieved over the body of a war protester at Kent State University.
Both women talked about how the photos—which strengthened the antiwar movement in the U.S—affected their own lives. Vecchio, then a 14-year-old runaway from Opa-Locka, Fla., says she was verbally attacked afterward for being a symbol of the war-protest movement, while Phan became a propaganda tool for the Vietnamese Communist party. Both had at first been reluctant to attend the workshop.
“I clammed up about the whole thing for 24 years,” a tearful Vecchio said after hugging Filo, 46, a former Newsweek pictures editor whom she had met seven months earlier. “I always dreamed about meeting him.” She claimed her own life had been “pretty messed up by the photo.”
In fact, her life was already troubled when the photo was taken. Vecchio told the gathering how she had awakened on the morning of May 4, 1970, and spent hours walking with her dog around the Kent State campus, where students, upset by the expansion of the war into Cambodia, had burned down the ROTC building. Shortly after she wandered into the protest, Ohio National Guard troops inexplicably started firing at the marchers. “When you’re a kid, you’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “It was scary, but I never dreamed they would shoot at us. Everybody said, ‘Oh, rubber bullets.’ But no. I saw this guy, Jeffrey Miller, lying on the ground. I thought maybe I could use my little Nurse Nancy skills and help him. I turned his face over—there was no way! I just ran. I never knew my picture was taken.”
She found out soon enough. The next day the photo appeared on the front page of newspapers across the country. Vecchio’s parents found her after seeing the photo and brought her back home. She eventually finished high school, but not before spending time in a juvenile home. She claimed that she was harassed by police, who arrested her for possession of marijuana and prostitution. She also said that she was branded a “professional agitator” by then-Florida Gov. Claude Kirk. Eventually she made her way to Las Vegas, where she married a plumber and became a cashier at a coffee shop. “I feel like I’ve been a prisoner for all these years,” said Vecchio. “But now I can express myself about Vietnam. I want to thank John Filo. If there was any way the picture helped stop the war, I figure all the suffering I endured was worth it.”
Phan Thi Kim Phuc’s suffering was of a more obvious sort. Two of her six brothers died in that 1972 bombing of a Caodai temple, and the brother on her right in the photo suffered permanent damage to his left eye. Phan, who tore off her clothes because they were burning, has crimson rope-like scars on her back. In 1986, after years of unsuccessful medical treatment in Vietnam, she was separated from her mother and father and sent to Cuba to study and carry out “goodwill” missions for the Communist cause. For six years she attended the University of Havana while she planned her defection to North America and freedom. Finally, in October 1992, she and her husband, Bui Huy Toan, whom she met in Cuba, escaped to Canada on the way back from a honeymoon trip to Moscow. They are now legal residents living on welfare in Toronto with their 18-month-old son, Thomas.
Phan, who asked to speak after Ut finished his slide show, said she had always dreamed of coming to the U.S. “That picture changed the world,” she said. “Also, it changed my life. I suffer a lot. But as time passed, it gave me strong faith. I don’t want to remember that pain. I am just thanking in my present and in my future. Even now, when the weather changes, I have that pain. But my mind controls the pain. God bring me husband. I have a son. Finally I’ve got everything.”
MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York State