Justin Mott was trained in the US as a professional photographer, but seven years ago, he decided to leave to the distant shores of Viet Nam, to highlight the plight of Agent Orange victims. He recently held an exhibition titled For a Child in Isolation, to raise funds for Nu, a young girl who has suffered from Agent Orange since birth. He talks with Viet Nam News about his work.
How did you learn about Viet Nam and Agent Orange victims?
I learnt about Agent Orange victims through browsing the photography book section at a book shop in San Francisco. I was studying work by other photojournalists so I could improve my own work. I came across the work of Philip Jones Griffiths titled Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Viet Nam. His images were so powerful. I felt the horror and I wept right there in the bookstore. At that moment I realised the power an image can have and I wanted to push myself to create images that made people feel true emotion.
Why did you decide to come to Viet Nam?
I came to Southeast Asia as a backpacker and spent time in Viet Nam and Cambodia. When I got back to San Francisco, I felt a pull to be back in Asia. I first moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia, for a few months and while I found it to be a tranquil life being surrounded by monks and lazy sunsets at Angkor Wat, I'm a city person at heart. I met a group of Vietnamese photographers in Ha Noi who were extremely welcoming to me and they made my experience here a happy one. Ha Noi is an extremely photogenic city and being a cafe person, I was happy here from the first day.
Would you share how you felt when you first approached the victims to take photos?
It was a therapeutic experience for me to get back to my roots as a photojournalist and to take on stories with meaning. It was extremely emotional for me to see some of these children with such horrible malformations. I'm still horrified and feel a bit guilty that I haven't been able to help these children more.
How did you get acquainted with Agent Orange victims and understand them?
I'll never truly understand their pain. I did my best to spend as much time as I could observing their lives and the lives of those around them such as their carers. A good documentary filmmaker or photographer observes and observes, spending as much time as possible with their subjects so they go back to their normal way of living and forget you are present.
I know a lot of photographers try to capture a story in one day, it's impossible. We owe it to our subject to spend more time understanding them. The more time you spend, the more chance for natural moments and the truer the story becomes.
I took several trips up to the Ba Vi District Orphanage, Ha Noi, and for Nu's story, I've spent five years documenting her and will continue to document her life.
Through the exhibition For a Child in Isolation, I raised around US$8,000, and the money will go into a private fund to help Nu for the rest of her life.
I concentrated on Nu because it became a personal story for me. She is in much worse condition than anyone I've ever met because she is blind, deaf, and mute. I have helped others in the past but this exhibition was just for Nu because I personally wanted her to have a better life and felt she needed it the most.
What do you intend to do next?
Now I must decide the best way to manage her fund in her best interests. We must manage Nu's fund for a sustainable future. I also intend to start a film documentary about her.
How would you sum up your time in Viet Nam?
I miss my family and friends in the US but I've made loads of new friends here and now my life is here. I feel no regret about my decision to live in Southeast Asia; I love it here except for the heat. I will stay in Viet Nam for five or 10 years more.
I will take more photos and make documentaries about the Agent Orange victims with the hope that I can do something to help them. I just tell the true stories, the community will understand and decide what they should do. — VNS