For many people, the image of the naked girl Kim Phúc is permanently burned into their visual memory. In 1979, Gisèle Freund predicted that the photo would "remain forever in the memory of those who have seen it. " For Phillip Knightley, the image of the girl, also known as the "napalm girl," is "one of the most iconic war images of all time. " A team of experts assembled by the Department of Journalism at New York University ranked the photo 41st among the 100 best American journalistic works of the 20th century. The photographer himself also found the image outstanding: "That photo showed the world what the war in Viet Nam was about. People, regardless in their nationality or language, could understand and relate to the tragedy. [...] The picture for me and for many others could not have been more real. It was as authentic as the war itself. "
Pictures do not simply reflect history. Rather, they are able to shape it as a pictorial act itself. They are testimony and judgment in equal measure, and a remarkable obstinacy is inherent in them. This is particularly true of the photograph of the girl Kim Phúc, which has been reproduced millions of times as an authentic document of the Vietnam War and has thus become an icon. As such, she leads her own life in the collective memory and has generated her own reality, which has little in common with the one originally depicted. Again and again, the image has been functionalized for the most diverse political, commercial, and religious purposes and placed in new contexts.
The extensive literature on photography makes it possible to use it as an example to study the relationship between history and the history of images, to analyze the process of iconization of an image, and thus to fathom the process of exaggeration and overwriting of the original images that follows every great war. At the same time, the study of the production contexts and the history of reception provides insights into the meaning and function of the media in modern war, and it exemplifies how cultural memory functions in the global media public sphere.