Poles and Decades Apart, Two Silent Screams Issue Discomfiting Reverberations

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.

Although Ut put down his camera and took Kim Phuc to a hospital, you can't say that the camera was her friend. Hilton, on the other hand, is entirely a creature of the camera -- happily, intentionally, lucratively. She has built her fame by being seen, by being on camera, on television, willing bait for the paparazzi. The camera captured Kim Phuc like a house cat in a bear trap; the camera, in Hilton's case, captured a momentarily distressed woman like a Chihuahua nipping its master.

Seen side by side, these images also raise questions about not just war, but the war we're currently fighting. Ut's earlier photograph wouldn't be controversial today just because of the nudity, but because it can't possibly be read as anything but a powerful indictment of war.

War photographers today, and newspapers that use war images, are hampered by the dangers of working in Iraq and the politicization of the war at home. The new war photography often steers clear of powerful, bloody and unambiguous imagery, in favor of images that come at the horror of war by side channels, showing generic grief, generic destruction, generic traces of blood or physical agony. Ut's photograph was an indelible image of a single, particular girl, in agony; today's war photography tends to capture small crowds of grieving men or women, thronging the site of a car bomb, or the door of a hospital. Their collective keening rarely has the same, full-frontal power of Ut's particular child, naked, wounded and frantic.

President Nixon found Ut's photograph so clearly antiwar that he did the only thing he could, given that he was Nixon and the war was an albatross. He doubted its authenticity.

"I'm wondering if that was fixed," he said, according to the infamous White House tapes.

Kim Phuc brought the war home. The Paris Hilton photograph has no such direct message, but it bears witness to a shocking triviality on what once was called "the home front." It's not uncommon, in the history of war propaganda, to connect images of cherished things at home with the sacrifice asked of soldiers and their families. Think of Norman Rockwell's 1943 series known as "The Four Freedoms," which surveyed icons of the American good life during a time of war. Paris Hilton and her ilk generate an imagery of decadence and foolishness that is all the more glaring because it reminds a nation at war how unequally the sacrifice of war is being borne.

Because Ut took this photograph, because the nation is once again at war, you might imagine that some soldier in Iraq would see the Hilton photo and ask, "This is what we're fighting for?" Or someone conflicted about the war and its outcome might wonder, "Isn't this a ridiculous distraction from serious matters?" The Hilton photograph seen round the world emerged during what may be remembered as the darkest days of the war, when the troop surge seemed to be leading only to more violence. A nation exhausted by four years of repetitive and diluted images of conflict and grief embraced the possibility of changing the subject. We turned the channel, and there she was. From Baghdad weeping to Paris weeping.

Paris Hilton has nothing to do with the war. She is not a cause, or a consequence, or a byproduct, or anything else to do with the war. But in her vapidity, her ridiculousness, her unashamed ignorance and narcissism, she suggests to the world that the values we project through means such as war are not decent, serious values. The image of Kim Phuc said to us, "Here is the war, look at it, it's horrible." The image of Paris Hilton, seen in the context of Ut's earlier photograph, says, "Oh, is there a war on? Really? Like, whatever."

And so Kim Phuc is seen straight on, while Paris looks to the side, captured through glass and glare. They are two human beings so separated by class, privilege, circumstance and time that it's tempting to think that neither one of them could possibly imagine the world of the other. Kim Phuc, whose burns required 14 months of hospitalization and 17 surgical procedures, survived and is now a UNESCO goodwill ambassador living in Canada. Paris Hilton, who was imprisoned for 23 days, survived and is now posing naked and covered in gold paint to advertise her new line of "wine-in-a-can" drinks.

So perhaps we should take these photographs down off the wall, take them away from each other, remove them from their almost insulting proximity. Perhaps they really do have nothing in common except that the same man was behind the camera that captured them.

But there is this: On both the basic, factual level and in a broader, more metaphysical sense, we made them. Kim Phuc's misery was the collateral damage of a war we made. Paris Hilton's vanity and fame and preposterous sense of entitlement is the collateral damage of a society we made. Before filing these two images into their proper categories -- the tragedy of war, the vacuity of the home front -- we should acknowledge the one thing they have in common at the deepest level. We own them, they are us, and they define the odd limits of our silly, foolish, bloody-minded species.

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