In 1963 the revered Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc was driven to one of Saigon’s busiest intersections, that of the streets now named Cach Mang Thang 8 and Nguyen Dinh Chieu. Travelling in a baby blue-coloured Austin A95, he was accompanied by two other monks and a large plastic petrol container filled with gas, stored under the front hood. A circle of chanting monks had already formed at the intersection after walking in procession from a nearby pagoda — the arriving sedan drove into the middle of the circle. The monks helped Thich Quang Duc from the car, and he sat on a cushion in a lotus position as he was drenched with five gallons of gasoline. After praying he lit a book of matches and let it fall to his lap.
The next day while reviewing the papers, American President John Kennedy saw Malcolm Browne’s photo and exclaimed “Jesus Christ!” He later said, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
Browne, an AP photojournalist, had been following the Buddhist struggle for religious equality in the face of continued persecution and was alerted to the event the night before. He was the only photographer of record at the scene. He shot 10 rolls of film that were smuggled to The Philippines for AP distribution. The photo was recognized as the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 and was a turning point in the war.
When the photo appeared, I was both a photographer and university student in Boston. I was transfixed by the image of a man in flames, but also in a state of grace. David Halberstam would later write, “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.” Thich Quang Duc’s heart survived immolation and the subsequent cremation. He is today revered as an enlightened saint.