Malcolm Browne, the photographer behind the iconic photograph of a Buddhist monk performing self-immolation in Saigon in 1963, has passed on last August 28 at the age of 81. In his honor, let’s take a closer look at the story behind his iconic image. WARNING: Contains graphic images.
On the eve of June, 10, 1963 in Saigon, Vietnam, members of various foreign press news agencies received a call to be present in the coming morning at a certain location for a “very important” happening. Most of the correspondents ignored the calls, thinking that they were just mere bluffs. Only a handful decided to cover the event, and one of them was Malcolm Browne, an Associated Press correspondent.
The next morning, June 11, a group of Buddhist monks and nuns gathered on an intersection in one of the streets in Saigon, Vietnam. In the middle of the circle formed, an elderly monk by the name of Thich Quang Duc arrives and sits calmly in a lotus position. Browne, along with the other spectators, look on as a couple of younger monks douse his body with liquid. Their curiosity, however, turns into silent horror as Duc strikes a match, drops it on his lap, and his body is promptly engulfed in flames.
“… It was every bit as bad as I could have expected… I don’t know exactly when he died because you couldn’t tell from his features or voice or anything. He never yelled out in pain. His face seemed to remain fairly calm until it was so blackened by the flames that you couldn’t make it out anymore.” – Malcolm Browne, in an interview with TIME in 2011.
The act was part of a protest against the persecution and the religious tension between the Buddhists and the Roman Catholic government led by Ngo Dinh Diem.
The photographs caused such an impact all over the globe that it has marked the start of the rebellion of not just the Buddhist clergy, but of the common Saigon citizens as well. It has also prompted the then-US President John F. Kennedy to order a re-evaluation of the United States’ stand in the Vietnamese regime.
“No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” – President John F. Kennedy
The event itself is also said to trigger the start of the collapse of the Diem Regime, which ended a few months later, when Diem, along with his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, were assassinated.
As for Browne, the photographs quickly spread and were featured on the front pages of newspapers worldwide, eventually leading to his earning of the Pulitzer Prize as well as the World Press Photo of the Year.
Browne was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000 and spent his last years using a wheelchair to get around. He was rushed to the hospital Monday night after experiencing difficulty breathing, said his wife, Le Lieu Browne, who lives in Thetford, Vermont.