From hell to Hollywood — reflections about a talk by Nick Ut

Pulitzer Prize winner, Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut, visited HKU and gave us a talk today. The name of the talk is intriguing: From Hell to Hollywood. He used to work as a war photographer for Associated Press (AP) during the Vietnam War. After the war, he went to Hollywood and started taking photos for famous movie stars and public figures.

Nick talked about his war photos and Hollywood photos. There was, however, no drastic change of his style. He observed and documented what he saw in the same way throughout the years. In the Q&A session, he was asked “Has the use of digital cameras changed your way of taking photos?”. He smiled, and said:”Well, they are lighter, easier to carry, and I don’t need to worry about running out of film anymore!”

His enthusiasm for photography is largely affected by his brother’s death in 1965. His brother was working for AP then as a war photographer and died in the battlefield. Nick was only 14 then. But he decided to take his brother’s camera and continue his unfinished career. In 1966, he officially started taking photos. His photo TrangBang, taken on June 8, 1972, won the Pulitzer Prize. In the photo, he showed a heartbreaking scene of a little  girl running from a bomb, screaming for help. The photo stirred up heated discussion among the public, and President Nickson even said the photo was fake. Nick tried to help the little girl to receive medical treatment, and she later became a peace activist in Canada.

As a war photographer, Nick was constantly in danger when he was Vietnam. He ran with the soldiers to the frontline, and took pictures of them when they are in motion. This is how great pictures were born. He said:”There’s always a fight.” By “fight” he meant gunfire, and he, a journalist without any weapon or means of protection, was physically in the war to capture the most “real” moments. His devoted attitude towards his career is what makes him a great photographer.

I can see his love towards his motherland in the photos he took. He not only took pictures about Vietnam in the war. He took a photo where two girls accidentally dug out a bomb left by American soldiers and died. Their mother was in tears. It is painful to see the legacy of the war still hurting people after decades. He keeps observing changes on his land. He took pictures of people sunbathing on the beach, of mother holding her child in her arms, of grandmas celebrating for festivals… His pictures make me smile. He delivers the universal message of love and peace. I feel deeply impressed by the love he penetrated in his pictures.

The Hollywood part of Nick’s career seems more interesting, as we know of most stars on the screen. But I feel less “real” when I’m looking at the pictures. Nick continues his sentimental way of observing people and took a lot of suggestive pictures of public figures.

Nick is obviously not used to holding a microphone. His hands kept moving around, sometimes doing gestures while most often it seems he was treating the microphone as his camera. “I’ve been working for AP for 45 years. It’s my family.” When he said this, I saw the happiness and fulfillment shining in his eyes.

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