Philip Jones Griffiths is a Welsh photographer whose book Vietnam Inc. was published in 1971. We think it’s the best book there is about the Vietnam War. Recently, Griffiths released another book about Vietnam, titled Agent Orange: “Collateral Damage” in Viet Nam. In it, he drew together all his formerly unpublished work documenting the effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the US military during the Vietnam War. Griffith’s work shows us that all of the things we fear—boring stuff like bankruptcy, STDs, and being sad—are tiny pinpricks compared to the Armageddon that was brought down on the people of Vietnam.
Vice: What’s the story with Agent Orange?
Philip Jones Griffiths: The component of Agent Orange that kills, that produces deformed kids and illnesses, is called dioxin. It’s an amazingly powerful poison.
America dropped it on South Vietnam during the war. Today, they say, “Look, we didn’t drop it on Vietnam to produce deformed babies. We did it to clear the vegetation so we could see the enemy. If we knew how dangerous it was we wouldn’t have done it.” But of course they knew how dangerous it was.
Basically, they didn’t care if they killed trees, Vietnamese people, or both...
Yes, but their contempt for the Vietnamese was matched only by their contempt for the American soldier, who also got sprayed and died in large numbers, or who made it home and produced deformed children.
Did you hear about Agent Orange while you were still in Vietnam, or later?
There were rumors going around in 1970 and some photos had been published in one of Saigon’s main antigovernment newspapers. At the time the government dismissed the whole thing, saying it was a result of VD from prostitutes.
How did you find the victims?
I originally looked in Catholic orphanages, but I was forbidden entry into every orphanage or hospital where these children were kept. It seemed that the word had spread to keep the press out. It wasn’t until I returned after the war was over that I gained access to a children’s hospital in Saigon. The staff would actually phone me at my hotel whenever a baby had been born that survived and was recognizably human. Often they would only survive for a few hours, so I would get a call at my hotel in the middle of the night and rush over there. The photos of the mothers are as heartbreaking as the photos of the victims.
So the attempt to hide Agent Orange from the media—from you—didn’t really work. Do you think they were able to hide some of the grimmest realities from you?
I saw an awful lot. A child born with no brain was perhaps the most shocking, but I saw countless deformities and stillbirths. The photograph of the two blind children who are clinging to their mother was the first one I took. Once I began to encounter more victims of Agent Orange I realized that I had probably seen afflicted people in the past and attributed it to spina bifida or something similar.
Did it ever feel too overwhelming? How could you keep going?
There is no real answer to that. I suppose I simply had to. A photographer who cannot maintain, who breaks down and cannot focus their lens, is as useless as a surgeon who faints at the sight of blood. You have to keep your cool about you and channel your anger into your fingertips and keep that shutter moving. If you have to break down then the place to do so is at home. I have to tell you, though, that I used to get very emotional in the darkroom or looking at the contact sheets. At the time, however, I remained stoic and was helped in that respect by the mothers, who were the model of stoicism. When you see parents playing with a child who is essentially a grotesque it would be inappropriate to break down.
Were the victims given any aid?
The amount of aid that was given to these essentially poor people was very small. It has increased as the country has become more prosperous but it is still negligible.
Have you yourself suffered any illness from exposure?
I have contracted colon cancer, which is on the US government’s list of possible Agent Orange side effects. However, my family has a predisposition, as both my brother and grandfather have suffered from it as well. I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy and receive a check from the US government every month, as colon cancer warrants compensation. I was heavily exposed to Agent Orange, particularly flying through areas that had just been sprayed. I inhaled a lot of that shit. Saigon itself was very badly affected by Agent Orange, since many steel drums that had contained Agent Orange were reused afterward to store gasoline for cars. When you heat up Agent Orange it becomes far more reactive. That stuff was basically pouring out of exhausts and would kill all the trees. It was something we used to joke about at the time because we couldn’t figure out why the trees were all dead. We only found out about the drums later. If I were to take a test right now the levels in my blood would show massive exposure.
INTERVIEWED BY VICE STAFF
All photos by Philip Jones Griffiths from his book Agent Orange: “Collateral Damage” in Viet Nam, published by Trolley Ltd.