Long time no see: A visual exchange between two artists and the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange

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Andrea Orejarena and Caleb Stein gave their collaborators control over their narrative, culminating in a multi-disciplinary body of work that reflects on questions of authorship

Agent Orange is a powerful herbicide that was sprayed by the US military across forests and crops during the Vietnam war. The primary aim was to destroy vegetation, but the long-term consequences of exposure were far more sinister. Containing the deadly chemical dioxin, exposure to Agent Orange was later proven to cause serious health issues – including cancer, birth defects, rashes, and severe psychological and neurological problems. 

This affected US troops too. Returning home after the war, they began to file claims, and in 1984, thousands of US veterans and their families won a $180 million lawsuit against the chemicals’ manufacturers. However in Vietnam – where an estimated three million people have been affected, including 150,000 children born with birth defects – no funding has been provided to reconcile its impact. 

In 1988, in a personal mission of reparation, US veteran George Mizo – who passed away in 2002 due to complications related to Agent Orange – initiated plans for a residential facility for Vietnamese victims of the chemical warfare. Located on the outskirts of Hanoi, Làng Hữu Nghị (Friendship Village) is an education, health, and rehabilitation centre with space to care for up to 250 children and 100 adults. 

Tan & Kien in the pool at Lang Huu Nghi.

Multimedia artists Andrea Orejarena and Caleb Stein first visited Làng Hữu Nghị in 2015. The trip was part of a year abroad program offered by Vassar College in New York, where they were studying at the time. The artist-duo were initially hesitant,  coming from America. Not only because of the country’s role in the war, but also the scrutiny surrounding photographers who swoop into foreign countries and impose their own agenda. But as they got to know the residents – sharing teas, late-night drinks, and playing games – they began to realise how narratives surrounding the war had been skewed. “The crazy thing was when we expressed our initial hesitation to them, they said: ‘Well, why would you feel that way? We won the war.’ It just flipped our whole understanding of that conflict on its head,” says Stein. “The narrative we’re consuming in the US, and in the West generally, is so slanted. The war is still fought, after it’s technically finished, by who tells the story with the biggest microphone.”

Orejarena and Stein became hyper aware of the gaps in their education. The reality of how and where they had been fed information about the war – mostly from Hollywood’s “manicured mythologies” – became strikingly clear. Back in the US, they began to conceptualise a project that would centre around a collaboration and exchange, one that would give the victims of Agent Orange control over their own narrative. In early 2018, they returned to Làng Hữu Nghị and spent the next 18 months working on a collaborative body of work that would eventually become Long Time No See: a multimedia project and now book, published by Jiazazhi. 

'Long Time No See' book spread, video still with right painting by Bui Thi Hoa
'Long Time No See' book spread video still on left, and right photograph of Manh.

“We wanted to be sensitive to the power dynamic of being the ones with the camera,” says Orejarena. Every aesthetic choice in the project was made in collaboration with their participants. “We created the conceptual backbone… but we knew we couldn’t come up with any concept for the physical pieces until we got to Vietnam.” 

The artists guided their collaborators towards different mediums of expression – from photography and film to painting and sculpture. They worked with two groups: the war veterans, and a younger generation of residents. While the younger generation leaned into physical acts of mark-making, the veterans sought to visualise concepts relating to their experience of the war through film. One man, for example, was stationed on a mountain as a night guard. He remembers being exhausted; all he wanted to do was sleep. With the help of an animator, ​​Orejarena and Stein brought this vision to life. The resulting video shows the veteran napping among the clouds, enveloped by the protective cradle of a soft fog. Others are superimposed into the jungle, or within an anti-war protest in Washington. These video pieces are threaded together in a three-channel installation, with stills re-printed in the book. 

Engaging in this level of collaboration meant the artists relinquished the control they’d usually have over the aesthetic output of their work. “It was one of the few moments I’ve been able to resist having expectations in my life,” says Stein. They were motivated by a quote from the philosopher Édouard Glissant – “I can change, through exchange” – “there’s a lot of love in a statement like that,” Stein reflects. “We were both very drawn to that… We’re both drawn to work that’s made from a place of love.”

The collaboration didn’t end when the artists left the country either. “What we’ve noticed is that there’s an older generation of documentary filmmakers and photographers who have engaged with this question of power dynamics. But ultimately, they retain full authorship,” says Stein. “We thought, ‘you have to put your money where your mouth is’.” If their gallery makes a sale, or if they win a grant, a third of the money will always go back to the participants in Vietnam. 

Long time no see has employed a sensitive and democratic approach to storytelling, from its conception, through its execution, and now in its presentation. This level of care and connection is beautifully reflected in the project’s title. One of the many side-effects of exposure to Agent Orange is hearing loss, and six out of the seven younger participants were deaf. In order to communicate with them, Orejarena and Stein learned Vietnamese sign language. The title of the project is inspired by the sign language translation for ‘long time no see’. “It registers like a graceful dance,” says Orejarena. One arm is stretched out to the side, while the other reaches for it in a fist, which then slides across the arm, the chest, and makes its way all the way across the body, until it releases at the side of the body. “So much of the communication was a visual exchange,” Stein reflects. “And that’s what was so lovely. It transcends language.” 

Long Time No See is published by Jiazazhi.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.