Nick Ut Reflects On His Career: From Hell To Hollywood

When airplanes flew low over Nick Ut’s home in Los Angeles, California, his house shook and reminded him of the Vietnam War. Born in Long An, Vietnam, Ut started working for the Associated Press (AP) when he was 16 years old, following in the footsteps of his older brother who had recently died while on assignment in 1965. Ut inherited his brother’s cameras and taught himself photography by working in the AP’s darkroom and shooting protests in Saigon.

His editors’ quickly recognized Ut’s skill and sent him into the field to cover the Vietnam War. Ut’s brother’s voice echoed in his head. “I make a picture for you, my brother, to change the war,” Ut said.

Nick Ut checks the screen as his photos scroll by in front of a large audience at the University of Montana. Photo by Alyssa Rabil.

Ut spoke at the University of Montana on March 9, as part of the 100-year anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize and to celebrate his 50 years working for the AP. In 1973, just 21 years old, Ut won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography. He called the picture “The Terror of War,” but others referred to it as “The Napalm Girl.” Dean of the School of Journalism, Larry Abramson, walked past that picture dozens of times, printed on flyers, in the weeks leading up to Ut’s visit. “Even on the Xerox copy, I’d stop and see something new every day,” Abramson said.

The picture features children running down a road in Trang Bang, Vietnam after a napalm attack on the village. The “Napalm Girl” was Phan Thj Kim Phuc, who ran away from the village, arms outstretched and completely naked. Ut shot several frames of her and the other children fleeing before he understood how badly Phuc had been burned by the attack.

“I saw skin coming off her body,” Ut said. “And I thought, oh my God, I don’t want her to die.”

Ut set his cameras aside and started dumping water on Phuc to try and help her. However, he knew that Phuc and the other children needed professional help, so he transported them in the AP van to the nearest hospital. Since then, Ut said, “I keep looking to help the children.”

He’s sent food and clothing to families in Vietnam impacted by the use of Agent Orange, and he’s kept track of Phuc since the day of the attack on June 8th, 1972. Phuc began to refer to Ut as “Uncle Nick” over the years, as he continued to photograph her skin’s recovery and support her as a current U.N. Goodwill Ambassador. Thanks to Ut’s photos, the two have also spoken to media around the world about the cruelties of war. Ut said, “We met the Queen of England, me and her.”

Sally Stapelton alerted faculty to Ut’s upcoming birthday. J-school faculty and students celebrated with him after class. Photo by Brontë Wittpenn.

Pollner Professor, Sally Stapleton, and Ut’s friend from their shared time at the AP, said, “He takes ‘No means nothing’ better than anyone I know.”

Ut said he’s “always with camera” to be prepared for unexpected stories. In contrast to his time covering war stories, Ut said, “I tell you, Hollywood, it’s a lot of fun.” Now based in Los Angeles, Ut’s shot court cases involving Michael Jackson, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. He also captured the “Super Blood Moon” of 2015 and unexpected L.A.P.D. street arrests.

For the UM journalism students in the audience, Ut said the key to a great photo evolves from four elements: keep moving, try different angles, keep shooting and capture different emotions.

The next pressing assignment for Ut will be covering Nancy Reagan’s funeral Friday, March 12th.

Stay up-to-date with Ut’s work by following his Twitter and Instagram accounts.

by Jana Wiegand

Calgary Herald Reporter Covers Environmental Controversies

Derworiz standing in front of the audience answering questions.
Derworiz took questions from the audience about climate change and how the Canadian government is addressing the issue. Photo by Alyssa Rabil.

Over the course of Colette Derworiz’s 17 years at the Calgary Herald, she’s reported on everything from breaking news to enduring social issues, yet her latest beat has taken her out of the city and into the national parks. Now as a senior reporter on environmental issues, Derworiz spoke to the UM School of Journalism about Canada’s changing climate. Her talk reflected more than just the environment, but also the recent changes in Canada’s political and economic climate.


After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election in October 2015, he removed the so-called muzzle on Canadian scientists that previously banned them from speaking about climate change issues and research. Within these last few months, Derworiz said that climate change went from not being considered a dirty word to becoming a major focus for Canada’s government.

“My job is about to get really boring,” Derworiz had joked to a fellow reporter, but as she reflected in her lecture, “The issue is not yet over.”

Associate Professor Nadia White asked Derworiz if scientists had opened their communication with the public since gaining the freedom to talk about climate change. Legally, Derworiz said the government has clearly communicated this new right, but that researchers’ attitudes have yet to change.

Derworiz spoke at the J-school as part of the Marjorie Nichols Lecture series. Nichols graduated from the J-school in 1966 and worked as a journalist in Canada. In 1998, UM awarded Nichols the Distinguished alumni award, and she continued working in the field until her death from cancer in 1991. Nichols was known for her national political commentary, but as an environmental reporter Derworiz has also seen how the political arena can impact natural resources and the policies governing their use.

At the Herald, Derworiz’s editor trusts her to tell a balanced story, and to avoid the common approach of pitting the environment against the economy. Derworiz said, “I think the new government recognizes that if you do things right for the environment, the economy can benefit from that.”

Alberta’s economy, like Montana, relies predominantly on extraction-based industries and is known for the Athabasca oil sands in the northeast part of the province. Starting in 2017, Derworiz said the government’s goal for the nation-wide carbon tax is to help fund cleaner ways to use oil and coal.

“There seems to be a real conversation going on, rather than just rhetoric,” Derworiz said. “But time will tell if the decisions are truly based off science.”

However, Derworiz knows that environmental issues extend beyond the border. Recently she reported on the trans-boundary sage grouse population between Montana and Alberta and a new plan to relocate 40 sage grouse to Alberta, with hopes keeping a more even distribution on both sides of the Canadian border.

Of current interest to Derworiz, are the upcoming talks between Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama on March 10th. The uncertain future of both countries economies and elections means that Derworiz won’t be running out of stories to cover anytime soon.

By Jana Wiegand

Accomplished Journalist, Ken Wells, Speaks About The Evolution Of Newspapers

Ken Wells, a seasoned business journalist, watched print news outlets evolve from traditional printing presses to the Internet’s 24-hour news cycle. At the first newspaper where Wells worked in Bayou Black, Louisiana, he used to run downstairs and smell the ink of the first papers coming off the press. In today’s world, he considers himself agnostic on which medium to use for publication, as long as people continue to tell these news stories.

Ken Wells speaks to a crowded room
“The best business stories aren’t about business,” Wells said. “But about their use as an interface for the human condition.” Photo by Alyssa Rabil.

Yet when Wells first started college, he didn’t dream about becoming a journalist. “I liked biology, and my father was a marine, so I decided to become a marine biologist,” Wells said.

He quickly became disillusioned with his classes and dropped out of college. Wells started working as a short-order cook at a 24-hours diner, but he quit that job after intervening in a late-night fight between customers. “I decided that breaking up attempted murder for minimum wage was not a good career,” Wells said.

He found an ad in his hometown newspaper, the Houma Courier, that read “Wanted: Part-Time Reporter, $1.87 / hour.” After the Courier hired Wells, his editor sent him off with a Polaroid camera to report on a bartender who had caught a 300-pound snapping turtle. Wells spent several years at the Courier before getting his master’s degree at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1977. From there, Wells worked at the Miami Herald, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News.

Wells spoke to J-school members as part of the Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, which honors Cole’s dedication to the journalism field after his death, on-assignment, on January 24th, 2001. Cole graduated from the UM J-school in 1980 and had worked his way up to The Wall Street Journal by 1992 as an editor and reporter. Participating in this lecture series had personal meaning for Wells, who met Cole through The Wall Street Journal. Wells said, “He was a great writer, a great reporter and always in amiable spirits.”

Both Wells and Cole followed their editors’ mantra “We can fix your writing, but we can’t fix your reporting.” Since then, Wells developed his own idioms for today’s journalists: “Google might run the news, but it won’t write it” and “You can break news on Twitter, but Twitter won’t save the world.”

Over the years, Wells’ reporting proved to him how strongly business relations influence science, culture and other important fields. He said, “Outside of terrorism, the business stories are probably the most important of our lives.”

During the question and answer session at the end of the lecture, second-year graduate student Andrew Graham asked Wells about approaching his first non-fiction books after his lengthy career writing for newspapers.

“There a few things you should never do for money,” Wells replied. “Get married, make love and write a book.”

Wells enjoyed the reporting stage so much that he didn’t become a diligent writer until he confronted his first 80,000-word deadline. He said he had to lock himself in the attic for 12 hours a day to write. “I stopped talking to my wife, I stopped taking showers and I started kicking the dog.”

Regardless of the medium, Wells said that business journalists must embrace their responsibility as public watchdogs to be the truth-sayers in society. “There are stories growing on trees,” he said. “I think that we have a bright future in front of us.”

Learn more about Ken Wells’ work as a journalist, author (fiction and non-fiction), photographer and musician from his website.

To catch up with live coverage of Ken Wells’s delivery of the annual Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, follow the University of Montana School of Journalism’s Twitter and Instagram accounts.

By Jana Wiegand