Documentary

Agent Orange: The Legacy of the Vietnam war

Main image: The abandoned children at the orphanage is named after the monks. 2-year old Chân Ngoc Xuân has downs syndrome. She crawls around on her stomach in the hallways for the most. All images © Tobias Nicolai

The Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago, and for many it is a distant memory. But the legacy of chemical warfare lives on in the form of birth defects and debilitating health in a great many Vietnamese. Tobias Nicolai’s series, The Inheritance From The Vietnam War, examines why this dark period of modern times can never be considered “just another chapter in a history book”.

The Vietnamese call it the ‘American War’ – the period between 1965–1973, when the US’s involvement in trying to stem the upsurge of communist guerilla fighters in the South-East Asia nation went disastrously wrong.

In an attempt to make it difficult for communist sympathisers to hide out in mangrove jungles in Vietnam, the US Government carried out a campaign of ‘deforestation’ using Agent Orange – a pesticide that, when sprayed on the foliage from military aircraft flying overhead, would quickly strip trees of their leaves, revealing anything below the canopy.

Room 4 is for boys only. All the boys that go to school live in this room. Hoa and Loi sleeping.

Room 4 is for boys only. All the boys that go to school live in this room. Hoa and Loi sleeping.

But Agent Orange also stripped humans of their skin and resulted in agonising side effects, the deaths of many, as well as some of the most horrifying birth defects known to man. “Wars do not end when the leaders agree on a truce, or when the bombs stop falling from the skies,” says photographer Tobias Nicolai. “Societies feel the devastating effects of war for many years to come.”

Vietnam still bears the scars of man’s struggles for prowess, and four decades later it is still plagued by the effects of war. The American deforestation campaign is now known to have caused land contamination, environmental damage, life-limiting birth defects and degenerative health in villagers still exposed to the toxic remnants in soil. It’s estimated that 100,000 of the affected are children.

1-year old Ho Chan Dieu Hien gets a hug by Pham who is a volunteer. This is the only time when Hien is not lying on his back and staring into the ceiling.

1-year old Ho Chan Dieu Hien gets a hug by Pham who is a volunteer. This is the only time when Hien is not lying on his back and staring into the ceiling.

“By highlighting how the Vietnamese still suffer from the warfare of decades ago I can show, in a physical embodiment, that the civilians in a war-stricken society are affected for many years to come,” says Nicolai of his series, The Inheritance From The Vietnam War.

The war was long and protracted – and devastating. “The lasting consequences of the Vietnam War are proof that in war, civilians will almost always pay the highest price. I wanted to show the horrible damage that chemical warfare has done to children born even 40 years after the war ended. I really wanted to show that many of the victims are kids.” And though they laugh and play just like children the world over, they embody the legacy of that war – a reminder of the devastation inflicted upon humanity by those that came before them, explains Nicolai.

Minh Anh is being called 'ca'. it means fish. The other kids made that name up because of his severe skin condition.

Minh Anh is being called ‘ca’. it means fish. The other kids made that name up because of his severe skin condition.

Becoming a photojournalist was a gradual process for 28-year-old Nicolai. Raised in Als, a small island in the southernmost part of Denmark, he spent much of his childhood on a skateboard and amassing a collection of objects of interest – postcards, Michael Jackson paraphernalia, fossils.

“I don’t know if there was a particular moment when the stars aligned and I sat up in bed and said to myself, ‘I want to be a photojournalist.’ I think it’s more like one long process that doesn’t end – but a process where I get more and more confident that this is what I want to spend my life doing.”

Ly Minh Son is only 16 years old. But his disease, Crouzon syndrome, makes him look way older. He has a a broken phone without batteries that he plays with.

Ly Minh Son is only 16 years old. But his disease, Crouzon syndrome, makes him look way older. He has a a broken phone without batteries that he plays with.

Nicolai is currently studying photojournalism at the Danish School of Media and Journalism (DMJX). As a part of the four-year BA degree programme, he interns at the Danish daily newspaper, JyllandsPosten, where he is gaining invaluable experience in bringing the stories of other to light.

“I was interested in doing the story on Vietnam because, even though the effects linger on for so many, the subject seems to have faded from a lot of people’s memories. The world is at war right now, and societies will be affected for many years to come. The Vietnam War is not just another chapter in a history book on the curriculum – it’s a history we must never forget.”

To see more of Tobias Nicolai’s work, visit his website.