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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007

If you want to go shallow for an Image of the Year, you can't do better than Paris Hilton, seen through the window of a Los Angeles sheriff's car, weeping as she's being hauled back to prison to complete a probation-violation sentence. What better image to sum up a year of celebrities in distress, starlets going to pieces, actors going to rehab, Britney going out on the town on the same day she said she was too sick to give a court-ordered deposition? Paris is our Everygirl of the party circuit, a transparent window on the nothingness of celebrity, the utter ungroundedness of fashion, fads and fame.

But when you first notice the credit on that now infamous picture, there's a double take. The image came from the camera of Nick Ut, whose picture of a little girl burned by napalm, naked and running directly toward the camera and into the conscience of the American people, became perhaps the most powerful and influential vision of the Vietnam War. Not only was the Paris Hilton image taken by one of this country's most celebrated war photographers, it was taken June 8, 35 years to the day after the devastating image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc fleeing her bombed-out village.

Coincidence? Absolutely. Bloggers struggled to find some deeper meaning in the two photographs, but struggled in vain. The Nick Ut connection was a serendipitous fact, a strange little thread joining two very disparate moments in history. But let's put these two pictures up on the wall together for one last, end-of-the-year look, and see if something emerges.

Simple, grasping-for-straws narratives fail to bind these two photographs into a meaningful whole. They bookend 3 1/2 decades of history, but there's no basic parable of American society here, no simple narrative of moral seriousness giving way to shallowness and silly girls. There was a faraway war in 1972, but at home there were plenty of famous flibbertigibbets just as flibbertigibbety as Paris Hilton. Today we have another foreign war, and a new crop of silly rich boys and girls.

Nor does Ut's life fit the narrative of some fallen journalist straight out of an Evelyn Waugh novel, once a war correspondent, now a red-carpet stalker and car-chasing celebrity-hound. He says he spends a lot of time at the courthouse in Los Angeles, photographing stars in distress, but that's all part of his job as an Associated Press photographer. He doesn't run with the paparazzi, and he pursues photographs for the same reason he did 35 years ago.

"When I came back from vacation overseas, I hear it's a big story," he says from Los Angeles. "I say I want to be there." He was vacationing in his native Vietnam, in part to mark the 35th anniversary of the horrifying image that made him famous.

And yet, placed side by side, these two images begin to take on meaning, slowly, in counterpoint, in part because they seem weirdly uneasy in each other's presence. The proximity of something so serious (war) with something so trivial (celebrity sightings) should create sparks of cultural blasphemy. Enumerate everything these two images might possibly have in common, and you quickly find they resist each other almost like the poles of a magnet.

They are both photographs. They were both taken by Nick Ut. They are both images of someone in pain.

There, with the word "pain," you feel the powerful forces of repulsion. The pain of a little girl burned by napalm (dropped by our South Vietnamese allies) can't be equated with the pain of a silly goose who doesn't have the basic maturity to face a well-merited and laughably mild punishment with any dignity. The photograph of Kim Phuc is about a pain that is real and compelling to the conscience, not just because it was physical but because it was inflicted on an innocent child. The tears of Hilton were due to a court order that returned her to jail to complete a 23-day prison term after repeated probation violations (stemming from a drunk-driving arrest). The vision of her weeping just doesn't feel real.

Hilton's pain was fodder for the national pastime of schadenfreude -- an ugly use for celebrity that often borders on sadism -- but at the same time, her pain could have disappeared in an instant, if she were capable of a single philosophical thought.

When Ut gave the image of Kim Phuc to his employers at the AP, there was a debate about whether the photograph could be sent to American newspapers. The girl, who had torn off her burning clothes, was naked. But the power of her distress and what it said about the war trumped those concerns, and the photograph appeared widely (including on the front page of this newspaper) and won Ut a Pulitzer Prize.

It's difficult to imagine that American newspapers would be so enlightened in today's more prudish news environment. Even so, the picture's power comes in part through its invasion of the girl's privacy. She is doubly trapped, fleeing from misery and destruction behind her, into the lens of a camera that will make her famous for something no child should be famous for.


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