© Nick Ut

Jonathan May’s winning portrait ‘Stanford’ won’t go away, it hasn’t become yesterday’s news.

It continues to challenge and amaze us still.

When the British Journal of Photography posted the image last week it elicited 1800 likes in 24 hours along with a fierce debate in the comments.

Jonathan May’s “Stanford” placed first in the Head On Portrait Prize 2013.’Stanford’ © Jonathan May

Stanford is a little Kenyan boy suffering a severe skin disease left him partially blind. As Jonathan May explained, he bought Stanford his Spiderman outfit, photographed him wearing it, and with the proceeds from the Head On Portrait Prize in 2013 created a fund to help Stanford and disadvantaged kids like him.

Lesser known today is the extraordinary 1972 image made by Nick Ut of a little Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, her small torso badly burnt. Ut received a Pulitzer for this photo.

©Nick Ut

© Nick Ut

Phuc was taken by Ut to hospital where he continued to visit her until the fall of Saigon. After 17 surgical procedures over 14 months, Phuc returned to her home.

“Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?”  Phan Thi Kim Phuc  – not a victim

Phuc met Bui Huy Toan, her future husband, while studying medicine in Cuba. They were granted political asylum in Canada where they now live with their two children. They founded the Kim Phuc Foundation, which provides medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war.

Why is it important to rehash this story? Because sometimes photography has the ability to heal, both physically and psychologically. The still painful scars of Phuc today remind us of that awful moment in 1972, the horror of war and the power of photography and goodness. I believe Mays’ photograph is similarly important.  To view ‘Stanford’ dispassionately is to fail to see it.

Art, and indeed photography, is not supposed to make people comfortable. It exists to nurture and change ourselves by making us see anew. Sometimes this is hard. The photographs of Ut and May challenge us by their grotesque and sad nature, the image of someone else’s pain. Can our collective compassion really heal the subject? Can we heal ourselves at the same time? Do we begin to at last SEE after our initial looking?

“That moment thirty years ago (43 years now) will be one Kim Phuc and I will never forget. It has ultimately changed both our lives” Nick Ut


Kim Phuc and Thomas

‘Kim Phuc and Thomas’ © Anne Bayin

 Reviewing this page of “musings” just now, I realize I first saw Ut’s photograph some 40 years ago, and find myself really SEEING it for the very first time.

Head On Awards 2014 Now Open for Entries – submission deadline midnight 9 March 2014

Over $50,000 worth of prizes including $20,000 cash


This year, for the first time, choose from 4 categories or enter all of them.




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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 open in May/June.

Image detail: Gary Ramage