Malcolm Browneu2019s horrifying images shocked the world and helped bring about the end of a brutal regime, writes David Clark

Image: Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street to protest the alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government © Malcolm Browne/AP/Press Association Images

The history of photojournalism is scattered with examples of iconic images that have made their creators uneasy. These photographs may have become internationally famous and influenced public opinion, but the photographer is troubled by the thought that their career has been advanced by recording human suffering, or that they may have somehow influenced events. One such image is Malcolm Browne’s ‘Protest of Thich Quang Duc’.

In June 1963, Browne was a 32-year-old journalist and photographer for the Associated Press agency, living in Saigon, South Vietnam. He had been working as the Vietnam bureau chief for two years.

At that time, South Vietnam was governed by a Roman Catholic president Ngo Dinh Diem. He was widely disliked for his repressive and discriminatory policies towards the majority Buddhist population. Their demonstrations were brutally suppressed, and in May 1963, eight people had been killed by government forces in a protest against the ban on the Buddhist flag. However, Diem was supported by President John F Kennedy’s government for his strongly anti-Communist approach.

As unrest grew, Browne realised that an important story was developing. ‘While other correspondents got tired of the endless Buddhist street demonstrations that were going on all that summer, I stuck with them because I had the sense that sooner or later something would happen,’ he said in the book, Reporting America at War: An Oral History (2003), compiled by Michelle Ferrari with commentary by James Tobin.

‘I became a familiar presence at the main pagoda in Saigon… One monk in particular would telephone me in advance the night before something was planned. One night he advised me to come to the pagoda at seven the next morning because something very special and important was going to happen. He sent the same message to half a dozen other American correspondents, but they all ignored it. I did not.’

The following morning, 11 June, Browne went to the area in central Saigon where the unspecified event was to take place. At midday, a car arrived as part of a procession and three monks got out. One placed a cushion on the ground and the most elderly of the three seated himself on it in the lotus position. Around 300 other monks and nuns formed a large circle around him.

The seated monk was 66-year-old Thich Quang Duc, a senior Buddhist monk who, earlier in his life, had overseen the building of many Buddhist temples in the region. As he sat, the third monk poured a mixture of petrol and diesel fuel over him. Then Thich Quang Duc lit a match, dropped it onto himself and burst into flames.

Browne later recalled the scene in his autobiography, Muddy Boots and Red Socks: A Reporter’s Life: ‘As the breeze whipped the flames from his face, I could see that although his eyes were closed, his features were contorted with agony,’ he wrote. ‘But throughout his ordeal he never uttered a sound or changed his position, even as the smell of burning flesh filled the air.’Some monks prostrated themselves in front of Thich Quang Duc, while others prevented emergency vehicles getting through to allow him to complete his martyrdom.

‘Numb with shock, I shot roll after roll of film, focusing and adjusting exposures mechanically and unconsciously,’ Browne continued. ‘Trying hard not to perceive what I was witnessing, I found myself thinking: “The sun is bright and the subject is self-illuminated, so f/16 at 1/125sec should be right.” But I couldn’t close out the smell.’ The most famous pictures he shot showed the burning monk with the car that brought him to the scene and the crowd of monks watching in the background.

After around ten minutes, the charred and lifeless body toppled forward and was quickly carried away in a coffin.Other photographers and film crews recorded this horrifying scene, but the only Western journalists to witness it were Malcolm Browne and David Halberstam, a reporter for The New York Times.

Browne’s photographs won him the World Press Photo Award for 1963, while both Browne and Halberstam shared the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for their general news reporting from Vietnam.

Browne went on to have a successful career as a news journalist and later became a science specialist on The New York Times. Now aged 80, he still lives in New York. When interviewed for the book Reporting America at War, Browne admitted to having mixed feelings about the photographs he had taken in Saigon 40 years earlier.

‘As shock photography goes, it was hard to beat,’ he said. ‘It’s not something that I’m particularly proud of. If one wants to be gruesome about it, it was a very easy sequence of pictures to take. 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.

‘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.’ The worldwide publication of Browne’s pictures had a direct influence on American policy.

In the days immediately following the event, one of the pictures was seen on President Kennedy’s desk. Kennedy remarked to the US ambassador to Saigon, ‘We’re going to have to do something about that regime.’ Later, when talking about the photograph’s impact, Kennedy said, ‘No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.’

Further protests followed, including more public suicides by Buddhist monks. President Diem soon lost US backing and within five months his rule ended in a coup d’état, during which he was assassinated. The governments that followed did not pursue his repressive policies. Thich Quang Duc’s extraordinary self-sacrifice, conveyed to the world in Browne’s photographs, had led to a turning point in his country’s history.

Events of 1963

  • 27 March: Dr Richard Beeching publishes his report on the future of British railways, calling for huge cuts in the British rail network
  • 15 April: In the annual march against nuclear weapons from Aldermaston to London, 70,000 protestors arrive in London
  • 11 June: President John F Kennedy delivers his historic Civil Rights Address, in which he promises a Civil Rights Bill for the United States
  • 8 August: The Great Train Robbery takes place in Buckinghamshire. More than £2.6 million is stolen and most of it is never recovered
  • 28 August: During the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’, Martin Luther King, Jr, delivers his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to a crowd numbering over 250,000
  • 19 October: Alec Douglas-Home takes over from Harold Macmillan as British Prime Minister, who resigned due to ill health following the Profumo Scandal
  • 22 November: Assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas,Texas. Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as the 36th US President
  • 24 November: Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of John F Kennedy, is shot dead by Jack Ruby
  • 25 November: President Kennedy is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia
  • 29 November: Lyndon B Johnson establishes the Warren Commission to investigate Kennedy’s assassination

Books and websites

Books: Browne’s autobiography Muddy Boots and Red Socks: A Reporter’s Life (1993) tells the story of his eventful life as a photojournalist. Browne is also interviewed in Reporting America at War: An Oral History (2003). Both are available from www.amazon.co.uk.

Websites: Video footage shot at the scene of Thich Quang Duc’s protest can be seen on www.youtube.com. More information about him can be found on www.wikipedia.com and on the website set up in his honour, www.quangduc.com.