The blazing frame

The blazing frame

June 11, 1963: Saigon, South Vietnam. At around 11 in the morning, an elderly Buddhist monk — Thich Quang Duc — accompanied by two young associates, got out of a car at the busy intersection of two main streets in downtown Saigon.

One of the younger monks placed a small pillow on the ground on which the 66-year old monk sat and assumed the traditional lotus position. A circle of monks and nuns already formed around the intersection chanted softly. An air of expectation prevailed. 

The two young monks who had accompanied Duc in the car brought up a plastic can containing gasoline; they poured the contents of the can all over the squatting monk. Duc took out a matchbox, lit a stick and dropped it in his lap. He was immediately engulfed in flames. Amazingly, he did not cry out in pain; his face remained fairly calm; barely a muscle moved even as the raging fire devoured his body in minutes. Many of the monks and nuns, as well as some shocked passersby, prostrated before the burning monk.

Finally, when the body was completely reduced to a blackened remnant, it was covered in a yellow cloth, and taken in a coffin to a temple where thousands of people paid their respects during the next few days. Five days after his immolation, Duc’s body was transported to the crematorium in Phu Lam for the last rites. Incredibly, Duc’s heart did not burn to ashes like the rest of his body during his immolation as well as the ‘re-cremation’.

Thirty-two-year-old American journalist and photographer Malcolm Wilde Browne, who was then working for the Associated Press, exposed no less than six to eight rolls of 35-millimetre film on a cheap Japanese camera — Petri — to record the event. By his own admission, Browne was the only Western correspondent present during Duc’s immolation. Within days, his pictures reached millions of people in the United States and the world over. One of his pictures of the burning monk who was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government was later named the ‘World Press Photo of the Year’ (1963).

“No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one,” said President Kennedy, whose government was the main sponsor of the then Ngo Dinh Diệm’s regime which blatantly persecuted Buddhists in Vietnam. Before immolating himself, Duc had left a note detailing his reasons for the act: “Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diệm to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and lay Buddhists to organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”

After Duc’s suicide, five more Buddhist monks immolated themselves in the next few months. Buddhist protests in Vietnam also escalated. On November 1, 1963 Diệm was overthrown in a coup, and assassinated the very next day.

Human element

Fifty years after it was shot, the picture of the burning monk still remains as one of the most haunting images ever photographed. “It was clearly theatre-staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end,” recalled Browne. “At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying... As shock photography goes, it was hard to beat. It’s not something that I’m particularly proud of.”

Browne also remembered that even as he busied shooting those pictures of the burning monk, he could hear the wailing and misery of the monks. He also felt a very strong and overwhelming smell of joss sticks, burning gasoline and smoldering flesh. “It was not necessarily the hardest story I’ve ever had to cover, but it was certainly an important part of my career.”

Browne explained that the picture meant many things to many different people and interests. “The Chinese and the North Vietnamese regarded it as a wonderful propaganda picture, and of course, they labelled it ‘A Buddhist priest dies to oppose US imperialism and its influence in Vietnam.’ In the United States, it was regarded as a picture of a martyr who had died for a worthy cause, and therefore other Americans should support the overthrow of an autocratic Catholic government (led by Ngo Dinh Diệm) that had been supported by President Kennedy.”

Could Browne have prevented the suicide of the monk? “I could not. There was a phalanx of perhaps 200 monks and nuns who were ready to block me if I tried to move... But in the years since, I’ve had this searing feeling of perhaps having in some way contributed to the death of a kind old man who probably would not have done what he did — nor would the monks in general have done what they did — if they had not been assured of the presence of a newsman who could convey the images and experience to the outer world. Because that was the whole point — to produce theatre of the horrible so striking that the reasons for the demonstrations would become apparent to everyone. And, of course, they did.”

Call of fame

Curiously, when the picture got published worldwide, Browne did not immediately come to know of it. It was only after he started getting congratulatory messages that he realised the real impact of his photograph. Despite its importance, not all newspapers published the picture of the burning monk. The New York Times, for instance, thought it was too gruesome, and not suitable for a breakfast newspaper.

Interestingly, Browne’s first love was not photography but chemistry. His interest in photography and journalism came when he was drafted for the Korean War. In his long and illustrious career, he worked for the Associated Press, The New York Times and Discover. As an exceptional war journalist, he won several awards including the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and George Polk award for courage in journalism.

When he died last year on August 27, at the age of 81, art critic Jonathan Jones of The Guardian wrote that Browne’s photograph of the burning monk would endure as a classic. “In the 1960s, images of war were to proliferate, and raw violence was to feed photography and art. Yet, this photograph stands out as a harrowing record of one person’s terrible, meaningful death. It revealed a new kind or desperation, and a new kind of hero. Browne too is one of the heroes of photojournalism.”

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