"Mother and Child, Huyen b. 2000" (photo by Petronella Ytsma)
"Mother and Child, Huyen b. 2000" (photo by Petronella Ytsma)

submitted by Petronella Ytsma

For many years, my photographic work has been concerned with social justice and ecological issues from an artistic perspective. My work, "Legacy of an Ecocide," concentrates on intergenerational effects of chemical usage on a specific population impacted by war, such as in Vietnam and on American veterans who served in that war.

From 1961 to 1971, the United States engaged in extensive and systematic use of chemical warfare for the stated purpose of defoliation in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The most toxic of the chemicals employed was Agent Orange, containing the extremely poisonous and persistent chemical dioxin.

This can only be described as an ecocide, with much done in secret, and with little regard to long-term consequences on our own troops, local populations, or environment. There are estimates of more than 5 million people potentially exposed to dioxin in the regions most heavily sprayed, as well as some 3 million U.S. military veterans.

Friends who were Vietnam vets struggled with cancers and other symptoms directly linked to Agent Orange/ dioxin exposure. This led me to begin educating myself on intergenerational effects of war-making. In 2007, and again in 2008, I spent several months in Vietnam. I visited various areas contaminated with Agent Orange, interviewed government and community officials, and documented many children afflicted with a wide array of disabilities, birth defects, cancers, and other diseases attributable to the effects of exposure to dioxin.

Dioxin remains toxic for many decades, as it is not water soluble, settles in the soil beneath lakes and ponds, and finds its way into the food chain. Today, millions of acres of land remain degradated and contaminated, making fish, fowl, and other wildlife unfit for human consumption.

With an interpreter, I visited 75 families in their homes, and ten institutional orphanages and hospitals in these Vietnamese ‘hot spots.’ I photographed second-, third- and fourth-generation babies affected. I spent four to five hours with each family, and then gave an envelope of cash, generally to the woman doing the main care-taking. This $35-40 — at that time enough money to live on for about a month — was meant as a simple thank you for their time, and for allowing me to document.

Many times, the women would break down. Suddenly we were holding each other. I felt like no one ever holds them. Some women have been abandoned by spouses, or blamed for their children’s disabilities. Those caring for the children, especially in rural areas, were often isolated, overworked, and lacked adequate resources.

The relevancy of my work is evidenced by the fact that myriad issues surrounding Agent Orange exposure continue to this day. The work is not necessarily easy to look at or think about. I have had a number of people who simply say, “You can’t prove this is dioxin or Agent Orange-related.”

I respond, “You’re right, but I have questions. I don’t understand why there are geographic pockets where we sprayed the most heavily and most consistently, with a preponderance of people with severe disabilities.”

I still have some belief that I have added to the dialogue, but we remain a hegemonic power, heavily invested in war and chemical industrial complexes. We fool ourselves into believing that other people’s children are not as precious, or human, as our own.

My portraits point to the long-term consequences of living in environments exposed to these chemicals. They serve as a glimpse of the legacy we left in Vietnam, and are my testimony to the children and their families.

I believe it is vital we meet their eyes and look into that mirror. May these images deny the wish to erase the past and ‘the other’ from memory.