[slidepress gallery=’aaronjoelsantos-orphansofagentorange’]

Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls

Aaron Joel Santos

Orphans of Agent Orange

play this essay


The Vietnam Friendship Village is an Agent Orange orphanage and care center founded in 1998 by George Mizo, an American veteran of the Vietnam-American War. It houses 120 children in six homes spread across the small, intimate complex. Located just outside of Hanoi, it is a place of both enduring hope and profound sadness.

During the Vietnam War, the US dumped roughly 80 million liters of the defoliant Agent Orange across Vietnam. Now, four decades later, the dioxins continue to effect the lives of thousands across the country. The children in the Friendship Village are all victims of this war, all suffering from the after shocks of the chemical substance.

But what sets the Friendship Village in Hanoi apart from many of the other orphanages and centers that take in children of Agent Orange is the care that it provides. Funds given to the village by benefactors and organizations from across the world give the children there access to food, shelter, schooling and health care. Often these funds far exceed what their families would be able to provide for them back home. So there is hope here. But hope in the most dire of circumstances.



Aaron Joel Santos is a freelance photographer living in Hanoi, Vietnam. His photographs have been published in a number of international magazines and newspapers and shown in galleries in the US, Malaysia and Vietnam.

He enjoys local cuisines, warm and humid temperatures, cheap beer and good people. So Vietnam just kind of fit.


Related links

Aaron Joel Santos


Editor’s note:

Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

34 thoughts on “aaron joel santos – orphans of agent orange”

  1. Very thought provoking, relating to a subject some would like forgotten. I have to ask though, “why are some images contorted in that verticals and horizontal’s are not straight”? These are easy to correct. But, was this something that might be considered as additional to the subject.
    One of the appealing aspects of this site is that the subject matter often covers things that are little known, or even not known at all. This essay certainly sheds light on something that has been swept under the rug historically speaking.

    DAH. Can you send me a contact e-mail please. I presume you have mine?

  2. Strong pictures.
    The essay appears a bit short, in comparison with others. What I am missing are some pictures, where personell is handling the children. Be it in an educating context, nursing or something else. I think, such pictures may complete the whole.

  3. Congratulation on being published here. This is a heart-wrenching problem, and it’s great that someone is trying to help these kids. There seems to be alot of connection here between the children and the photographer, and almost none between the subjects. Looks like this is trying to straddle the fence between being a series of portraits and telling the stories if the children. The question that keeps rattling around upstairs is, if these children were healthy and normal, would having 12 shots of kids looking at the camera be a portrait series or a story? I would have like to seen some with George Mizo, or any of the others there to help.

    The “Children of Lead” story is a very similar subject, but it focused much more heavily on the people trying to live their lives, which made it very successful to me.

  4. Profoundly sad.

    The number of families affected in Vietnam during and immediately after the war was staggering enough but I did not realize the effects continue into new generations today. Twenty years after the war the majority of the U.S. House and Senate were still refusing to accept the health effects for even U.S. service members, let alone the nearly one million who suffered from the effects in Vietnam in the early years.

    Now I see, four decades later, the U.S. government has just begun to address in a small way the issues of dioxins that are pervasive in the food chain in areas of Vietnam, and on former military bases. To say that a $3 million appropriation for remediation efforts in Vietnam would seem way too little, way too late is an understatement. The money was, ironically enough, added to the appropriation bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2007.

    Thank you for providing this. I would not hesitate to expand on the overwhelming scope of the issue in any text that accompanies your photos in the future.

  5. Pingback: aaron joel santos – orphans of agent orange | burn magazine | The Click

  6. My first thought when I look at your pictures, is, “why aren’t we (the USA) fully funding such institutions? I would say that as our nation caused this, we have that responsibility.

    So, to me, your essay succeeds. I would hope that it gets much more exposure.

    Dave Tait: I know that there are a good many folks out there who believe as you apparently do, that horizons and verticals should be 180 and 90 degrees respectively. I just simply don’t understand this and I disagree with it. I think the photographer should photograph it as he sees it and not worry about correcting his vision just because it is easy to do and does not conform to someone else’s vision.

    This thing that bothered you did not bother me at all. What I saw when I looked at this photographs was – the photographs and the emotions and stories contained within.

    DAH: Right after “Cutouts” went out, you asked me to contact you by email as you had some thoughts that you wanted to share. I realize that you must be impossibly busy and it might be awhile yet before I hear back from you, but could you please confirm that you did receive my email?

    Thank you

  7. Pingback: Twitted by extrajection

  8. There is something very The Godfather (ish) about the first one.

    I enjoyed this very much, although it’s too short. There is more for you to catch, because I don’t see them do much. They’re just standing around, hanging around…. what do they DO? Go back. Observe. Shoot. Work on it.

  9. Sad situation, but the photography isn’t very good. I particularly don’t like the small head and shoulders of the subject with a huge expanse of something else above it thing. Really overused these days. Also agree it is to short for an essay. Looks like a group of snapshots to me.

  10. I’m going to have to be in agreement with Jim regarding the photography on this one.
    Imagery wasn’t great, and it was far too short.

    Obviously it could be a work in progress, but if so then I’d suggest that it’s not quite ready for showcasing just yet.

    My main gripe with the set is that I didn’t feel any closeness in the images. They sort of had a feel of a travel photographer/photojournalist holiday package (if that makes sense).
    They felt distant, showed a lack of trust between the subject and the photographer and felt like they were taken during a fleeting visit.

    Through the images, all we learn about the children effected by this condition is how they differ through their appearance. We see nothing else about how their lives are different… and I think this is something which would be important to the project.

    If this is something aaron really feels for then maybe consider moving away from the overcrowded “freak-show” side of the photojournalist tent and make it something real… something we can connect with.
    Maybe try to concentrate around a central subject show us the average days of their life, the toils they go through, the conditions they live in… and go further than the confines of the precinct, show what it would be like without it, and maybe how it could be if there was more funding.

    Basically, just do more on the project if you actually care about it, rather than taking a few shots on fleeting visits and using it more to expose your own work than the subjects themselves (that’s more of a general commentry, not just aimed at aaron).

  11. Aaron Joel Santos

    Thanks to everyone who has commented. As for the length of the essay, it was shortened down by the editors at Burn. I believe fully in their vision for the magazine and am not bothered by it at all. Maybe this brings up an interesting discussion on the power of editing these kinds of stories. Or maybe we’ll always just be moved by different things at different times. A one man’s treasure kind of thing.

    To Brian, I actually have many photographs of the children being cared for and interacting with each other. Some other photographers had already tackled this aspect of the story very well I think, and when I first went in that was very much on my mind. The focus on the portraits was my way of trying something different, of showing them in a more normal, everyday kind of light. I do agree that a stronger edit, in the end, would perhaps take from all of these sides of the story. It is something that I will be looking into. Thanks.

    To Jim and James, I’m sorry that you don’t like the pictures, but I do thank you for the criticisms. Maybe I need to work on better showing that trust with the subjects. Again, I guess it’s all in the edit. I will however defend the portraits of the children and my way of shooting the story, as the intent of the essay was to focus on them. As people, as victims, as whatever. I don’t believe that I approached this subject from the “freak-show side of photojournalism”. In fact, for what it is, I often wondered if it was far too toned down.

    Again, thank you to everyone who has commented and to all else who haven’t.

  12. “why aren’t we (the USA) fully funding such institutions?”

    The answer to that is: well, yes, why aren’t you?

    hypthetically asked, not assuming you gave an armchair answer, but there is a lot of good that individuals can do in this world, and usually can get them involved and informed enough that playing the blaming game strangely sides you on the side of the “doing nothing” as well. we don’t need a government to help someone(assuming that as proferred here so often, we are but “one”)and if enough of us, we become that part of our government which does act for the good of others.

    Of course, this essay takes me back to Phillip Jones Griffith’s own photos of this horror, with a sene that the kids in his pictures are teenagers or young adults now. The thing is, for all the pity, shame and compassion we may feel, these people always happen to be our teachers too, as young and stricken they might be. I know this is what Aaron wanted to tell us.

    Enough said…

  13. Thank you, Aaron, for going into this place and photographing the children with such respect. It must be difficult to see their deformities and at the same time comforting to experience their love of life. I do not see anthing of the “freak show” in this essay. Rather I see individuals whose lives were changed because of horrible decisions made by men in power, most of whom are long dead.

    My own brother-in-law died at a young age from a rare bone cancer I’m certain he contracted because of the Agent Orange he came in contact with during his two tours as a marine in Vietnam. His two sons became “orphans of Agent Orange” too.

    And yet, even today, the US military and government leaders continue to use terribly toxic and carcinogenic substances in many of the bombs they drop on civilians in their declared and undeclared wars around the world. And the American people turn a blind eye to it. So photo-documentary work like yours, Aaron, is essential. If we don’t see it, we don’t think about it. Even if we do see it, we can still close our eyes, but it’s harder to close down our hearts.

    Thank you for your work, Aaron. I hope you will continue working on this project and then find ways to get it out into the larger world. What you have to say about the multigenerational costs of war is important.


  14. I find myself agreeing with Jim (gasp). Tragic situation, but the photos aren’t particularly revealing or compelling. It’s not a story but a collection of portraits, which is fine, but they all perform the same task — they depict someone suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. The pictures don’t move beyond the fact of the deformities.

  15. I too think that this essay needs further development. As Preston says, it is more a collection of portraits, rather than the essay it is trying to be. The same shot is repeated over and over. I’m not sure if you have moved on from this story, but the points you decided not to shoot (the children being cared for and interacting with each other etc.) would be a necessary part of the essay. I feel you are kind of stuck in limbo between and essay and a portrait series and not quite achieving either.

  16. Aaron, to echo others here: this is a good collection of portraits but to connect the dots you must spend more time with these children.

    Working with subject who have deformities, developmental disabilities or retardation is no easy task. If this is truly meaningful for you, I think we will eventually see another iteration of this in the future on BURN or at least I hope so.

  17. I am glad I didn’t write a comment before I read your reply, Aaron.
    You seem a very very nice person, and your photos somehow reflect your character. Number 13 is my favourite.
    However, I have some doubts about NGO-like photography, but this is a far too long discussion that perhaps needs other milieus for further debates. I am very courious to look at your edit. Where can I see your version?
    All the best and thanks for sharing

  18. Aaron

    Thankyou and congratulations. Congratulations for being published, and for getting this story out there.

    These children represent the tip of the iceburg and effectivly point out the suffering which is still being inflicted by the money loving war mongers of our world.

    I can’t for the life of me understand some of the reaction here, except that I know from 23 years of personal experience as a parent of a mentally handicapped son, that people are uncomfortable confronting people with physical and mental dis-abilities. I experience this every time I go out in public with him, most recently an hour ago getting groceries. People stare, then look away embarassed if you catch them (if we catch you, just smile).

    Aaron, the straight ahead full frontal portraits are perfect. It is important, and powerful, to look people in the eye, wether they are handicapped or not. It is what I miss in most essays…direct confrontation, eye contact, the most powerful of human connections, and one of the most magical things that photographs are capable of doing. Eye contact with a piece of paper, or a computer screen.

    Yes, the essay could be longer, there could be stuff of the care-givers, the programs, etc etc, blah blah, but you have made your point elequently and powerfully. LOOK WHAT THEY HAVE DONE……..no more explanation needed.

  19. How can anyone not love Image No.6…

    I see a lot of respect in this work on the part of the photographer and feeling this when looking at the images is more important to me about the styling or number of pictures. Maybe there are more….

    Back to image 6… Aaron, you really gave those two kids something special by photographing them. Its very touching. Also…. no.8 is lovely too.

  20. I really love this work. I love the portraits. Seems people dislike portraits for some reason here, but I think these are very well done. Some seem to think the essay may be a bit tight, maybe restricted to some people, but I believe widening the scope of this essay would lessen its impact. Both visual and also in the content. I think it is just right as it is now. And I actually like #9 very much, contrary to Jim.


    i agree with everyone who has commented so far….everyone has said something a bit different, but all are right on…such an important issue, and since you live in Hanoi i think you should go in , dig deeper, and really give this visual justice…i published you here on Burn because i felt your efforts were heartfelt, important, and this story just cannot be told too many times…i did cut your edit way down because i felt the other pictures were repetitious of the ones we have here and not as strong visually as the ones we show…i think you would agree that the ones cut did not really add to the story to be told…yes, we mostly have portraits, which is not a problem for me at all, but perhaps there may be more to add in terms of just the way you see it and how powerful the portraits must be…remember please your work is always going to be judged against the strongest work we have seen on particular subjects….so yes you ARE going to be compared to Philip Jones Griffiths, James Nachtwey and Paul Fusco when you do a story like this…unfair?? NO…how else can we compare? come to a “middle ground”?? i do not think so….please use this comment as impetus to really go for it..all the way..this is good, but go for great….

    most stories here on Burn are in fact works in progress….which is the whole point of our comment system…i commend you for your efforts to bring light to a subject that many of us often forget…the stories to be told after the news is “hot” are stories of great import no matter how many years pass…many thanks for your interest in Burn and please stay in touch with me… please present any new work you produce in Vietnam on this or any other relevant story…

    cheers, david

  22. I looked at the essay yesterday. The internet connection here is too slow for me to go and look again. But I just wanted to register that I am glad you are showing this story. I agree with many of the commments here. I also would like to see more of the surrounds and of the people who care for them, so I hope you can keep delving into that side of their lives. I don’t see why a burn essay has to be a story as such. I am just as happy to see a collection of portraits. I also think the US government should be taking more financial responsibility for the care of these kids.

  23. Two things going through my head after viewing the collection (a few times over the past day):
    a) The facial-portraiture approach actually didn’t work all that well for me. Others have spoken about the freakshow factor. While I will of course give benefit of the doubt and think that this wasn’t the photographer’s intent, it is one possible reaction to the collection. The focus on faces, I think, can be disturbing (in the wrong way, in a way that detracts from the story and its messages, perhaps) to some viewers. Personally, I might have tried to focus on hands, feet, other body parts that might show the horrible effects of agent orange and explore the issues surrounding what happens now to the victims. If such images are already in the body of work for this project, I’d have edited them into the mix.
    b) Again, I will give benefit of the doubt and in now way am I making accusations here. I am concerned about issues of consent. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of victims of agent orange, but I’d suppose that they might not be able to directly and fully give consent for such photographs to be taken of them. I’d think this factor makes it even more crucial that a photographer taking on this subject might consider overcompensating on the dignity and privacy factors.

    On a basic level, I agree this is an important story, and thank you, Aaron for tackling it. It would be good to see more in the future, as the project evolves.

  24. Pingback: Rabulist - info (at) rabulist.se » Agent Orange skördar fortfarande offer!

  25. Hello, I just want to correct a misconception. Canada supplied an estimated one-fifth of the Agent Orange sprayed on Vietnam. It wasn’t just the USA. The first airplane to spray Vietnam was a specially ordered Made-in-Canada de Havilland. See Wikipedia’s Canada and the Vietnam War for some of the details. In addition, Ottawa allowed the field-testing of all the chemical warfare weapons later deployed to Vietnam on Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, New Brunswick. Millions of gallons and pounds of Agent Orange and Agent White were sprayed on CFB Gagetown and this was directly connected with the Vietnam War. This was all kept secret until 2005. Now several thousand Canadians are in a class action against the government of Canada, Monsanto and Dow. Canada’s Statement of Defence in the case denies there were any negative health effects, placing us in exactly the same situation the Vietnamese endure with the USA.
    I have some advice for Vietnam: Sue Canada for War Crimes.
    Kelly Porter Franklin
    Nanaimo, BC, Canada

  26. Great work on an important topic that has faded from the public view.

    Aaron, it was nice to meet you briefly at the EAW this year. I hope you got over your stomach bug!

  27. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  28. “And yet, even today, the US military and government leaders continue to use terribly toxic and carcinogenic substances in many of the bombs they drop on civilians in their declared and undeclared wars around the world.”

    Not only the US, Italian military personel that were in the ex Yugoslavia war have cancer due to depleted uranium, just to mention ONE scenario, there are many more. How many of the cilvilians might have cancer as well in those (ex) warzones?

    I strongly agree with Gordon Lafleur. Look. And ask. Don’t hide.

  29. Aaron,

    I’d like to offer congratulations and encouragement to continue developing this story. You’ve seen Kelly and Eva’s comments – your work is important and needs to fully occupy the public gaze. Yes, please give us some more context, it’s a tight edit and can easily take a few more pictures – and my favorite? No 12 – just for the fun and exuberance of it!!!


  30. So struck by the fact – obvious, but we always have to be reminded of the obvious – that they’re growing up now. It’s a lifetime’s fate.

    It could certainly have gone on for longer in this form. It’s true what people are saying that it’s incomplete as reportage, but there is something very different going on here which, when presented this way, makes for a forceful, specific vision. The lack of other people in the shots, the repetition of the edit, the faces often surrounded by empty space, the run down post-colonial feel of the surroundings, all add up to a consciousness of the isolation of the victims. It is isolation in the sense that they’ll never fully realise their human capacity for fellowship, and also that their welfare is a low priority for the powerful. You say that you just want to make portraits in normal everyday circumstances, but I think perhaps this isolation, or removal, could be a major connection between subject – how their lives are different – and style.

    Or perhaps you’d disagree entirely :)

    The last one of the chalkboard is a moving echo of the famous shot of the young girl by David Seymour, is it not? A reminder that the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict will be as long or much longer than WW2 for those involved.

  31. jenny lynn walker

    Sorry to be blunt but this essay makes me glad NOT to be American. Thank you for reminding me that so many CHILDREN are still suffering from the after shocks of ‘Agent Orange’ – 40 years after ‘The American War’ as it is known locally.

  32. @aaron: I don’t think you intended it to be a “freak show” type essay. But you have to accept that if all the photographs highlight are the visual differences between these children and what is considered as “normal”, then “freak-show” is what some viewers are inevitably going to take away.

Comments are closed.