The inimitable and award-winning Burn Magazine is currently featuring a selection of my Orphans of Agent Orange work on its website. It can be seen HERE. Agent Orange/dioxin poisoning is something that has been covered numerous times and by some great photographers, including Julian Abram Wainwright and Justin Mott right here in Hanoi, but in the end, after being here for a while, I decided that I wanted to explore the subject matter as well, as it is such an important aspect of Vietnam’s recent history.
I spent some time talking to the program director of the Friendship Village, where the images were taken, and sitting with the kids and hanging around for a few days before really taking my camera out. I didn’t have any kind of time line or agenda, and I think it really helped to slow down and consider what I was doing there. I don’t do that often enough.
A Small & Not All Sad Story About Agent Orange
This will be my last post on Agent Orange for a while. I’m taking this week away from the village to reassess and to figure out where I want the project to go from here. I’ll return hopefully on Saturday to say hello and to take a few shots before leaving for Lao Cai on Sunday evening. When I get back I’ll find time to print out some of the images for the children.
The photographs above are of a young 14-year-old boy named Nguyen Van Toan, who has lived in the Friendship Village for the past five years. He suffers from severe physical and mental defects, and will need some form of care for the rest of his life. He is wheelchair bound for all but one to two hours of each day, when he attends physical therapy sessions with resident doctors. He is at the Friendship Village because his family, rice farmers from Bac Ninh in northern Vietnam, are too poor and old to care for him. So these days Toan sees them maybe once a year, during Tet, if they can afford to make the trip. Otherwise he has no contact with his parents or three siblings; the village is his home, the children there his new family.
For Toan, the doctors tell me, it’s his legs that give him the most trouble. He has difficulty controlling his movements, but the physical therapy he receives each day aims to eventually give him more control over his limbs, to teach him how to relax his muscles and achieve certain, smaller goals. Like holding a crayon, or bringing food to his mouth. It’s a painful process, but everyday it gets a little easier. Everyday it takes him a little less time to adjust to the pain.
Success is measured differently here. Toan will never recover, but over the years the doctors have seen a marked improvement in his attitude and with his mental capabilities. When he first arrived, he wouldn’t talk or move on his own. Now, the doctor says, he is learning to use a spoon for his rice and even knows the words to some children’s songs. Though these small victories may be as good as it gets for Toan, in the Friendship Village, they are still small rays of light in an otherwise dark life.
This is shaping up to be a pretty busy week. August seems to have not so much passed as vanished into thin air. Where did the first 17 days of the month go? It will be December before I know it at this rate. Maybe this is just how time passes as you get older. Quicker. More viciously.
I’m working on a more concise and final edit for the Children of Agent Orange story, as well as on two other story edits. One for the older war veterans that receive care at the village and another for a single child that will need some form of care for the rest of his life. I’ve also begun to speak to some of the doctors and therapists at the village, to hopefully gain some contacts to later pursue a story on health care professionals in Vietnam. So far everyone has been extremely kind and accommodating to me. Hopefully the trend will continue.
The leg braces in the photograph above belong to a 14-year-old boy named Toan. I spent yesterday morning photographing him and talking with his doctors and care givers. I will be posting a more detailed account of his story in a few days, once I’ve sifted through and edited my images. For now, you can view two first edits of the Agent Orange work at my PhotoShelter Archive and on the Behance Network.
Tomorrow I’ll return to the Friendship Village with my friend and translator in an attempt to get a few more in-depth stories from some of the children and workers there. I’ll also be talking to some of the older veterans that stay there for two-month stints. Hopefully get them to tell some of their stories as well. It’s nice going out there by myself, but my Vietnamese only takes me so far.
The children in the two images above can’t, don’t or won’t talk. It’s hard to tell which. I like the top photograph for the chaos on the chalkboard and the scattered clouds pasted to the wall. Also the word “could” on the boy’s shirt. And then the lighter juxtaposition of the girl in the bottom image. A quieter side, maybe.
More later. It’s Sunday today and I want to spend it outdoors.
I’m working on an initial edit of my work from the Friendship Village now and will hopefully have something I’m happy with by the weekend’s end. My concern mostly being with how I want to portray the residents there. How to show all of the conflicting existences. How to tell a story that builds on what has already been said while offering something different, something with a more precise insight than “look at all this suffering”.
I went back yesterday morning but only took a few pictures. I spent most of my time just talking with the children. The empty bed in one of the photographs above belongs to Dung, a 20-year-old girl who has lived in the village for eight years now. Dung is extremely bright but has severe physical disabilities and something of a speech impediment. Her family lives 30km away in Ha Tay Province and she sees them around once a year, usually during Tet (lunar New Year). Dung’s mother and father and her three siblings all work in the family’s rice fields. They grow vegetables (water spinach and pumpkin stems) and make conical hats for extra income when it isn’t rice harvest season. The money that the Friendship Village provides for Dung to live far exceeds what her family makes on their farmlands. Her mother and father cannot afford to care for her in the countryside. So she lives at the orphanage, where she studies embroidery and English.
The dioxins in the Agent Orange compound have affected second and third generations of Vietnamese children in different ways. Some are completely lucid and arguably smarter than yours truly, while others suffer from severe autism, irreparable brain damage and other (sometimes much more terrible) mental and physical problems. Dung’s disability comes in the form of a kind of spastic diplegia, or cerebral palsy. She is one of the lucky ones.
Before I left yesterday she told me that she doesn’t like to have her picture taken, but she agreed to let me photograph her bed, which is one of three in the corner of a downstairs room in one of six orphanages on the premises. A 10×5-foot space with a metal bed, posters, an English-Vietnamese dictionary and a large pink teddy bear that she has called home for the past eight years.