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Friday, September 06, 2013

The Truth and Half-Truth about Photographs

[This is a scheduled post.]

A picture paints a thousand words. Of which, how many are truths, how many are half-truths and how many are convoluted lies?


I'm sure many of you are familiar with this iconic Pulitzer prize winning photo from the Vietnam War featuring a naked little girl running down the road. It was photographed by photographer Nick Ut in 1972.

[Source: SunSentinel]

On June 8, 1972, South Vietnamese planes dropped a napalm bomb on Trang Bang, which had been attacked and occupied by North Vietnamese forces. Kim Phuc joined a group of civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers who were fleeing from the Caodai Temple to the safety of South Vietnamese–held positions. A South Vietnamese Air Force pilot mistook the group for enemy soldiers and diverted to attack. The bombing killed two of Kim Phuc's cousins and two other villagers. Kim Phuc was badly burned and tore off her burning clothes yelling, "Nóng quá, nóng quá" ("too hot, too hot").

The photo above left me a deep impression. A few years back when I was doing research on wars for my materials, I wondered what happened to that little girl. At that time, there wasn't much news about her and so I always assumed that there was this possibility that she was no longer around.

I'm so glad to come across this article which my friend shared on Facebook. I was smiling as I read her inspirational story.

This little girl is Phan Thi Kim Phuc. Kim Phuc, now 50, lives near Toronto, Canada, with her husband and two children, Thomas and Stephen. She has currently dedicated her life to promoting peace and providing medical and psychological support to help children who are victims of war in various countries such as Uganda, East Timor, Romania, Tajikistan, Kenya, Ghana and Afghanistan.

The writer has done an excellent write-up and interview with Kim. I do not want to reproduce the whole article here on my blog so please click on the link to read her inspiring story. I will however, reproduce a quote which I can identify very much on my blog:

"Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?" -- Kim Phuc, 2008


Another Pulizer Prize Winning photo that caught my attention would be the Saigon Execution by photographer Eddie Adams, 1968.

[Source: SunSentinel]

When I first saw this picture as a student, I was horrified by the atrocities of public execution. I also read that the man was executed right on the spot without having a trial.

Imagine my total shock when I finally discovered the truth as an adult just a few years ago. The Internet is such a treasure cove of information to which we must be able to discern and sieve truth from rumours.

Extracted from ListVerse with modification from me:

This is one of the most infamous photographs ever taken. The photographer Eddie Adams would later regret being on the scene at the time, because his photograph would go on to destroy the lives of the gunman and his family. He is Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, a Major General in the South Vietnamese Army, and the National Chief of Police.

What you don’t see in the photograph is the reason Loan was executing the prisoner. That man is believed to be Nguyễn Văn Lém who is also known as Captain Bay Lop. He is a local Viet Cong officer who had been operating a gang of murderers bent on killing all the local police officers in that area of Saigon. He was responsible for arranging the drive-by shootings or hit-and-runs of dozens of policemen—and if they themselves could not be attacked, he targeted and murdered their families instead.So when he was finally caught and brought before Loan, the Chief of Police calmly unholstered his revolver and shot Nguyễn Văn Lém in the temple, killing him instantly.

Adams had no idea what he was about to photograph. He claimed that this picture destroyed all American pro-war sentiment.

Taken out of context, the photo seems to evince a senseless act of brutality, which explains why it was later used in support of the moral argument that protesters made against the war.

The photo depicts  General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan  arm outstretched, shooting a prisoner who looked like a civilian, though he was actually a Viet Cong guerrilla. The picture was front-page news and ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for spot photography. Eddie Adams later said that the picture didn't tell the story and that he was sorry he took it.

The reality is that the shooter (General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan), was executing a ruthless Viet Cong assassin, who was leading a team that had targeted the general himself. The ruthless man who was shot had beheaded people, been caught in the act of gunning down policemen, and killed the family of one of General Loan’s friends. That doesn't necessarily justify what Loan did. But when stripped of context, it looked like someone from the South Vietnamese national police gunning down some helpless guy, and that was not the case. Bay Lop was the leader of a sophisticated assassination team that was attempting to knock off all the top leaders [of South Vietnam], and General Loan was on their list.

A few years back, I spent quite some time reading on all the atrocities and brutalities of the Viet Cong and Bay Lop. Some of the descriptions of the killings were so graphic in nature that I could imagine the scene as I read the words. I personally feeel that the Viet Cong and Bay Lop deserved to be shot a thousand times over. In fact, such quick execution by gunning him right at the temple is letting him go too easily.

This photo truly leaves us with a powerful take-home message:
"Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths." -- Eddie Adams


Sometimes as I look through my own photos and photos of others, I do see how a couple of pictures could depict half-truths especially when the photos do not match my knowledge of incidents, issues and people.

Do feel free to share with me your take on this. I would love to hear what you have to say.


Edited to add (12 Sep 2013):

Dear all,

Thanx for taking the time to pen me your insights. I'm amazed when I read all of your comments from my email app on my phone coz the comments look so long and full of wisdom in them. I really enjoyed reading what all of you have to say. It's inspiring, enlightening, and I find myself being equipped with new knowledge.


  1. I agree about the fellow getting off too easy by getting a quick death.

    This confirms you're a smart, logical, thoughtful person (there was no doubt). So often we are quick to judge without full information. We just assume we know the truth, or believe the first version of a story when we hear it. We have to reserve judgment--believe half of what you see and none of what you hear!

    People in the US riot over court decisions, but really know nothing of what happened or what the laws are...but they feel justified in causing more trouble.

    A co-worker was upset that a man in Florida was not found guilty of murder for shooting a teenager. He said he couldn't believe that a jury of 12 people would set the man free. I corrected him, because the jury was only 6 people--I told him if he didn't even know THAT much about the case, he couldn't know all of the information the jury heard that led to their decision.

    But who needs facts??? Let's all just believe whatever we want, right???

  2. What cool research you have done. I learned so much more about those iconic photos. And I am sure Kim's quote about daily pain touches you especially. Love your pursuit and honoring of the truth. Great job!

  3. I visited the article and it was so touching and heart-warming to see that she was able to let go of those harsh memories and still continue to help people! such an inspiring story~ thank you so much for sharing!^_~

  4. Hi Jo, great post. I remember the first picture from my history class in middle school and freshman year of high school. I find it beautiful that Kim Phuc could forgive in the way that she did. With that second picture, this was the first time seeing it. I will also admit that upon first glance, it really does seem like a helpless guy being shot in the head. Especially in this context, I really feel that Eddie Adams quote rings true. It really makes me think about how important it is to seek out truths for yourself. It's almost like what they teach in college, about doing your own research and forming your own opinions. I really enjoyed this post and your insight Jo, especially with regards to the second pictures. Definitely an eye opener.

  5. agreed! maybe that's the reason why I love browsing and analyzing photographs. I feel that they are eye-openers the same as with paintings and other forms of art :)

    P.S. OMG!! Yes, Italy! gaaah! hoping that the day when I'll finally visit Italy would come really really fast because I can't wait! haha. :) Have a great day!


  6. These are both great evidences that photography and photos have a great power. You can either get part of the story or all of it in one shot. But, sometimes with media shots we only get glimpses that don't always give us the full information. I remember both of these as a child, still very haunting to me. xx

  7. I think there is a lot of power in those
    photographs and it's true that they don't always give the whole story.
    A picture may speak a thousand words but it's
    sad when they have no truth to them.
    Thank you for the great post,
    I was wondering what happened to the girl
    in the first picture ever since I saw it in
    my history class and it's good to know that
    she is living well now(:

    Much love,

  8. This is such an interesting blog post. I do agree about what you had wrote here. It's true that photo's are deceiving.. Anyway, I'm glad that you shared the truth about these pictures. It's sad looking at it but was really relieved that everything went well for the little girl.

  9. Even thought the girl in the first photo is now all grown up I cant yet come to terms with it when I see it.
    As you say the second photo when I saw it gave a totally a different impression. But going through so many years of war in my country (finally some peace) I can bel. about the assassin. So many photos videos were taken and re-produced during the war to the UN human rights by the the terrorist giving a total different picture of the army.
    What people dont realized is that a terrorist in a normal outfit becomes a poor civilian instantly and gain sympathy where as they are the most dangerous.
    So many stories like this took place over here too.

  10. Too many people jump to conclusions instead of understanding the facts (the truth). This happens so many times. Many countries have their own set of propaganda. People trust them and therefore believe. I am so glad to hear about the girl. I didn't know what had become of her. She has a beautiful heart. She forgives. That was very interesting about the second picture. I didn't know the true story behind it. It was so powerful. Excellent post Jo.

  11. Dear all,

    Thanx for taking the time to pen me your insights. I'm amazed when I read all of your comments from my email app on my phone coz the comments look so long and full of wisdom in them. I really enjoyed reading what all of you have to say. It's inspiring, enlightening, and I find myself being equipped with new knowledge.


I love reading sincere comments and hearing your voice. While blatant self promotion of blogs and follow for follow requests are not advisable, I would love if you leave a mark here with a trackback link so that I could connect with you. I reply to comments here or on your blog so don't forget to check back on replies! =)


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