Ethics Quote Of The Month: Kim Phuc Phan Thi

“I thought to myself, “I am a little girl. I am naked. Why did he take that picture? Why didn’t my parents protect me? Why did he print that photo? Why was I the only kid naked while my brothers and cousins in the photo had their clothes on?” I felt ugly and ashamed.”

I always  uncomfortable with that photograph from the moment I saw it, and thought it was cruel and unethical. Would the AP have published a similar photograph of a white American girl? I don’t know, but I don’t trust the Associated Press (or any press, at this point). It won Ut a Pulitzer Prize and helped energize the anti-Vietnam war effort in the U.S., but the photo (shown in the underlined link above) fails two basic ethics systems: Reciprocity, as in the Golden Rule, and Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which forbids using another human being as a means to an end. Can it be justified under Utilitarian principles, as a balancing of outcomes? Was the benefit of publishing the photo sufficient to make it ethical conduct, despite the harm it would do to an innocent child?

 Not on my scorecard.

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Thi is philosophical and magnanimous, saying that she has come to terms with the image (and the invasion of her privacy):

I’m proud that, in time, I have become a symbol of peace. It took me a long time to embrace that as a person. I can say, 50 years later, that I’m glad Nick captured that moment, even with all the difficulties that image created for me.

That’s nice, but it’s also moral luck. The photographer, the AP and all the publications that reproduced the photo didn’t know that the screaming little girl running naked down a road would eventually overcome the harm the image caused for her. “Growing up,” she writes, “I sometimes wished to disappear not only because of my injuries — the burns scarred a third of my body and caused intense, chronic pain — but also because of the shame and embarrassment of my disfigurement. I tried to hide my scars under my clothes. I had horrific anxiety and depression. Children in school recoiled from me. I was a figure of pity to neighbors and, to some extent, my parents. As I got older, I feared that no one would ever love me.”

Yeah, but what a sensational picture! Taken and published without her consent or any concern about how it would affect the girl, that photograph cruelly exploited a child at the worst moment in her life.

It couldn’t be ethically justified then, and it can’t be justified now.

7 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: Kim Phuc Phan Thi

  1. Shooting a child not of your own family for public dissemination is never ok. Shooting a naked person for public dissemination is never ok. Shooting a distressed person for public dissemination is never ok. This guy shot a picture of a naked, distressed child and disseminated her image publicly. Do we really need to go any farther than that? I’ve shot pictures of firemen and cops in action, but never of injured or compromised victims. I don’t think any one of us would like a picture of himself/herself helpless splashed all over the airwaves. To me this is open-and-shut unethical.

  2. While I agree with your assessment I am wondering about all those photos of NAZI concentration camp victims. Does it matter if the face is obscured when another identifying mark may be present? If it does not why should we even embed photojournalists in combat units? How can they tell the story of the horror of war? Glamorizing warfare by only photographing happy willing GI’s does not necessarily tell the truth.

    • Great analogy.The distinction would be that Ike had those films taken for reasons related to winning the war and seeking accountability, and a general in that position has wartime ethics to consider, which means, “Win” and little else. However, I will say that the very first time I saw the films, my first thought, after the horror, was “How humiliating to be seen in that state!”

      • Thank you for your take on this. What you described about Ike makes sense. Photographic evidence of the atrocities committed in these death camps had to be preserved. What is questionable however is the continued use of that imagery even today.

      • Wasn’t consent given for those photos, at least from the living? If I was imprisoned in those conditions, I’d WANT to be photographed as part of exposing the whole thing. I find it very different from taking a picture of a panicked, naked minor.

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