A Photographer’s Story – The Agent Orange  Entanglement

 

Documentary Photographer and Filmmaker Dean Saffron is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this social documentary photography.  From his project ‘What Lies Beneath‘.  To see Dean’s body of work click on any image.

 

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Between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 75 700,000 litres of chemical herbicides including the infamous Agent Orange in Vietnam, Eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia. This devastation was referred to as Operation Ranch Hand. While the war ended in 1975, the effects of chemical warfare remain apparent.

My father served in this prolonged war and in 1968 married and set about having a family.  As a child, I remember feeling curious and concerned about the pustule sores on my father’s back that never healed.

I was born 6 weeks prematurely with chronic asthma, lung problems and testicular cancer. My brother was born with failed kidneys which nearly killed him. Hospitals were a common theme of both of our lives for the first few years. Could it be possible that generations on, the legacy of Agent Orange and it’s super-contaminant Dioxin may be at play?

 

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Dioxin is now regarded as one of the most toxic chemicals known to man and remains present in Vietnam’s soil and river systems.  The original concept was simple – destroy all the foliage to expose the adversary.  The plan sounds simple but would it have been administered if there was an understanding of the mass devastation that would impact entire eco-systems and remain toxic for another four generations and counting? The United States government has started offering compensation for Vietnam veterans and their children for a range of cancers, diseases and birth defects related to their war service.

 

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It is reported that nearly 4.8 million Vietnamese people  were directly exposed to the contagion, causing 400,000 deaths.  Associated illnesses include cancers, birth defects, skin disorders, auto-immune diseases, liver disorders, psychosocial effects, neurological defects and gastrointestinal diseases. The Red Cross of Vietnam,   attribute  one million people  currently  suffering  disabilities  to Agent Orange, with  at least  100,000 of  those  effected being  children.

 

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I have spent  a lifetime   trying to  understand why my father is the person he is  and due to my  brother’s and my  own entry into this  world, I have been driven to   spend time in Vietnam , connecting with locals and learning their stories.  My compulsion to regularly travel to Vietnam and document aid projects is an extension of wanting to understand myself, my family and the ruthlessness coupled with resilience that humans manifest, especially apparent in legacies of war.  Perhaps it is why I spend so much of my life trying to tell other peoples stories and use the medium of film and photography to amplify everyday voices.

 

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During my latest visit , I wanted to look  more closely into  the plights of  children residing in local orphanages.  While it is impossible to attribute the disabilities of children living in such conditions to potential chemical exposure, I found myself with more resounding question marks.

Upon arrival at the Go Vap Orphanage, I was greeted with open arms and with a truly loving heart by all the staff.  There are approximately 250 children living in the orphanage and about 150 staff attending their every need. I have never witnessed such dedication to  this  vocation.  Nurses work 24/7 six days a week and on average have worked  at the centre for 7 years . One such  nurse explained  that she had been working in the centre for more than forty years.

During my stay, I observed all of  the nursing staff  nurturing and genuinely  engaging with the children while  sharing tender moments . However,  I confess to feeling confronted by  fearless children and acutely aware of my own sheer  good fortune .This rendered me lost for words on numerous occasions. The center has an adoption program, however  the children I met had not  benefited from such opportunities and are likely to live out their lives in the orphanage , living longer with care but not becoming cured.

Like  most children, the  Go Vap children enjoyed  activities of  meeting new people , playing games and joking .Every ward  is brightly coloured to stimulate the senses and there  is an abundance of decorations . The majority of children I saw suffered from Hydrocephalus , cerebral palsy and  forms of intellectual impairment.  More than 70%  of the orphanage experience such challenges from birth  as well as forms of Hepatitis,  chronic kidney or liver problems, blindness, deafness and  genital malformations. As  genetic or pre-disposition possibilities remain unknown , the actual causal factors are not able to be speculated upon.

 

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The biggest problem  for these children  as well as most  Children in  Vietnam suffering such these ailments is  access to  medical treatment   due to the scale of the issue. Medicinal  expertise and  sizeable donations  are required to establish   ongoing treatment  options and  to generate crucial  medical supplies .

Upon reflecting on my trip , was I any closer to understanding the impact  of  toxicity on individuals  and populations  ? If anything I was formulating more  internal questions than potential theories . I did however,  discover  tireless devotees  dedicating their  lives to the protection and support of  heroic children bursting  with courage and life force.

There are many such orphanages  dotted across Vietnam …

 

See also:

Vietnam Fishing Region

By Dean Saffron

 


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