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Legendary Photos: The Stories Behind 5 of David Hume Kennerly’s Iconic Images

Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist discusses his classic shots
Photo of Cambodian girl by David Hume Kennerly
© Center for Creative Photography/University of Arizona

Cambodian Refugee Girl

In early 1975, President Gerald R. Ford dispatched me on a mission to South Vietnam with General Frederick Weyand. The Communist forces had overrun Danang and had also cut the country in half. Weyand, who was Army Chief of Staff and a decorated Vietnam veteran, was tasked by the president to see if there was anything that could be done to stem the invasion. The president wanted me to go along and provide him with an independent report.

When we got to Saigon, I made a side trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a place I had also covered during the war. The CIA flew me there on a STOL (Short Takeoff Landing) plane because the airport was closed, and Cambodia’s capital was surrounded by the Khmer Rouge.

My buddy from earlier Vietnam days, Matt Franjola, now the Associated Press bureau chief in Phnom Penh, picked me up in his jeep and showed me around the besieged city. During that jaunt I took a picture that haunts me to this day. It is a portrait of a little Cambodian refugee child who was among thousands of people crammed into an unfinished hotel on the banks of the Mekong River in Phnom Penh.

As I was walking down one of its dark corridors, I spotted a flash of light. Sitting on the dirt floor was a small girl with a tear running down her cheek and a fly meandering across her face. What had caught my attention was the reflection off of a dog tag she was wearing around her neck. Was it her dad’s now worn as a trinket? Where was he?

Her eyes are what moved me. They seemed to reflect the horrors of all wars, past and present. They weren’t terrified, happy, or sad. They were vacant. They were without hope. In her eyes I saw everything I’d ever witnessed in war. The children were the ones who really suffered, not the generals or the politicians, but the kids. Years later I returned to Phnom to search for her, but with no luck. Another mystery of my life remains unsolved.


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