- “Trees are our enemy.” So said the US Army Commander in 1967, as they prepared to empty gallons of their deadly herbicide, Agent Orange, over the south of Viet Nam to defoliate and leave the enemy nowhere to hide. Agent Orange contained dioxin, one of the most poisonous substances known to man. It sounds almost too obvious to say that ‘collateral damage’ as they call it, would be inevitable. As the land and water supplies became contaminated, the first birth defects were reported in 1969, and quickly covered up. The Saigon newspaper who reported it was shut down. Philip Jones Griffiths, the renowned Magnum photographer of the Viet Nam war, was only too aware of the cover-up; he had both a nose for finding corruption and injustice, and an eye for photographing it.
But initially it was hard to find any evidence of the extent of the damage Agent Orange had begun to wreak on the country, and would do for generations to come. He decided to target Catholic orphanages, which he presumed would not have destroyed any unborn babies, no matter how deformed they were, but even here he was routinely told there was nothing to see, it was becoming a dark secret. It was not until he returned in 1980 that he saw his first subjects, and was allowed access to the Tu Do maternity hospital in Saigon, where the foetuses were now kept in rows of bell jars. By 1998 he had discovered a village called Cam Nghia which had the highest numbers of afflicted victims. He had amassed enough pictures to make a book to show the world what was going on, but who would take on such a project?
- Philip had made his name photographing the conflict in Viet Nam withthe more overt war accessories of guns and tanks and destruction, and publishing the 1971 book ‘Viet Nam Inc.’, a respected and important photobook that was responsible for turning the tide of public opinion in the US against the war. But it was nearly thirty years later that the ongoing and unseen silence of the victims of Agent Orange was about to be broken. Who would publish his images, almost too difficult to look at – deformed foetuses in jars, babies born with half a head, children with no arms, legs, eyes, an endless list of Goya-esque grotesque proportions. But they had to be seen to be believed. Philip was not to be deterred.
“It was the nearest I’ve come to a religious conversion,” is how Philip described meeting Gigi Giannuzzi, the publisher of Trolley Books, who would go on to bring out the book “Agent Orange - Collateral Damage in Viet Nam” in 2003. After meeting him in New York for the first time and showing him a dummy of the book, Gigi declared it no good. Why? Philip was taken aback. It needed more pictures! Against the odds, here was a man who was not afraid not only to publish this most difficult of subjects, to invest thousands of pounds into making a high-production book that had little or no commercial appeal, no chance of making any money, but he wanted it bigger, as many images as Philip had to show. It was a rare moment, a beautiful synergy between photographer and publisher, and the start of a friendship that both highly regarded over the following years until Philip’s death in 2008.
- The book duly landed on the desk of members of Congress, senators - one judge even said he was sick of people sending him copies – in an attempt for the Vietnamese civilians to be compensated as US servicemen exposed to Agent Orange had been. The US of course were resistant to admit blame in case it lessened their legitimacy to invade other countries at their say-so in the future. It was not until 2013 that compensation for Vietnamese civilians first began to arrive from the US government. Over forty years too late.
In 2010, Gigi travelled with Philip’s two daughters to Viet Nam to scatter a part of his ashes in the Saigon river, and to open an exhibition of Philip’s Agent Orange work in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which receives over a million visitors each year. It was a proud moment.
Today, it is terrifying to think that the same chemical companies behind the production of Agent Orange, Dow and Monsanto, are now fighting over the food on our tables.
Dow has been waiting in the sidelines to usurp Monsanto, whose weedkiller is waning in the face of weed resistance, to produce their own GM crops that are resistant to a new weedkiller they have developed.
- This new weedkiller just happens to contain almost the same chemicals as Agent Orange, and the new GM crop is therefore being called ‘Agent Orange corn.’
Dow and Monsanto are companies that have made their billion dollar fortunes over the decades through chemical warfare, including Dursban and napalm, and have now turned their attention to the lucrative chemicals that spray the land around us, and the food that we eat. Looking at Philip’s heartbreaking images, how can we let them?