Photographing Agent Orange in Vietnam

A few months back I went on assignment with the International Herald Tribune to Danang to cover part of a story on the US finally addressing its possible link to Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam. I say possible. It’s confusing. Liability and compensation and other political matters probably play a huge part. But so does the fact that these days, Agent Orange has become a kind of blanket catch all for physical and mental birth defects within the country. It’s obviously there, the connection. But finding really concrete and dense evidence between the dioxin and malformations is more difficult.

So that’s why I was there, with the writer finding a family with concrete and dense evidence of the link between Agent Orange used during the American War and birth defects that are still happening today, some 40 years later. I’d write more, but you’re way better off reading the much more interesting and properly researched article here in The New York Times.

Burn Magazine: Orphans of AO

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.

Toan All Together

Agent Orange Portrait

Toan All Together

Toan's Wheelchair

Toan All Together

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.

Leg Braces & Other Structural Matters

Toan's Other Legs

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.

Exploring Agent Orange #3

Agent Orange Portrait

Agent Orange Portrait

Unquiet Minds

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.