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St. Paul photographer documents lingering aftermath of Agent Orange on Vietnamese families

Photos by Petronella Ytsma from “Legacy of an Ecocide: Agent Orange Aftermath.”

There’s an unforgettable installation of photographs on view now at St. Catherine University  — “Legacy of an Ecocide: Agent Orange Aftermath.”

St. Paul photographer Petronella Ytsma spent several weeks in Vietnam in 2007 and 2008 documenting the human legacy of the Vietnam War, specifically the lingering genetic maladies left among Vietnamese survivors and their families by America’s widespread use of Agent Orange, a blend of herbicides, during the war. One of the herbicides contained 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (also known as TCDD).

“I had a chance, through Gustavus Adolphus College, to teach a class in Thailand in 2006, and I fell in love with Southeast Asia,” she recalls. “I was struck by how warm the people are, how beautiful — just incredible — the land is. And the food is amazing, too,” she laughs. “How could you go there and not come away smitten?”

“Like everyone my age — I’m 60 — I was deeply affected by the Vietnam War.” Ytsma says. “I recently started doing research on the issues surrounding Agent Orange, in particular, soon after one of my friends, a veteran, passed away from a dioxin-related cancer.”

She goes on, “Then, shortly after my friend died, I started thinking about the generational effects of the war for families in Vietnam. I wanted to see what we’d left behind there, all these years afterward. And the larger concerns continue today, I think: the ripple effects of our nation’s current activities in the Middle East and in the ongoing international production of similarly toxic chemicals — these issues are still relevant.”

So, with funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Ytsma took a leave of absence from her job and returned to Southeast Asia to take stock of those ripple effects in Vietnam for herself.

“I hired an interpreter and got a letter of introduction from Mayor Coleman, and that allowed me to meet Vietnamese officials.” Then, with the aid of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange and other international relief agencies and nonprofit aid organizations, she started taking portraits. In all, she visited more than 70 Vietnamese families still touched by their wartime exposure to Agent Orange.

“I wasn’t there as a social documentarian. Actually, I wasn’t detached at all: I ate with these families, drank tea with them, wept with them. At first, I was unsure — afraid they might feel bitterness or that I was intruding, or, at the very least, I was concerned they might treat me with suspicion as an outsider. To be honest, I thought that sort of response would be understandable,” she says. “But instead, they welcomed me as an honored guest and invited me into their homes.”

She describes the experience of documenting their lives, their dignity and familial devotion, in sacred terms: “I felt like I was on the inside of a prayer.”

“As difficult as it is to face such stark realities,” she says, “I hope these images can be one way the viewer can come to terms with their own footprint in the universe. We should be reminded that our actions — individual and national — have impact on other people, sometimes for generations down the line. I hope, through these personal portraits, we can remember that other people’s children are just as precious as our own.”

Indeed, what’s most haunting about these beautifully made black-and-white prints isn’t the heartbreaking disfigurement bequeathed to innocent generations by Agent Orange. Rather, it’s the abundant tenderness captured in these photographs that lingers in the mind: fingers interlaced, a hand affectionately placed on a child’s shoulder, lovingly chosen baubles and youngsters carefully decked out in their Sunday best to have their pictures taken. The friendly guilelessness of the younger generations in these photos is also striking, especially in contrast with the steely but tired gazes of their elder caregivers. (You can see many of the images included in the exhibition online here.

Presenting the images of “Legacy” publicly has been easier said than done, as it turns out. “I’ve gotten tons of rejections,” Ytsma admits, “from funders, venues, publishers and the art world. It’s been very difficult to get this work shown.”

“But I felt, throughout this process, that I needed to make a trade with these families,” she says. “If you take someone’s picture, you have the sense that you’re taking a piece of that person’s soul with you. I needed to give something back to them in exchange.”

Because of that debt she feels, she says, “It’s never been enough, to my mind, just to hang the photographs. Part of the way I can pay homage to these people is to use the photographs to encourage a larger public conversation. It was always important to me that the installation at St. Kate’s should also include a symposium (PDF). We need to have more dialogue about these issues, about how national decisions made in our name ripple throughout the world.”

“I don’t have any answers, as much as I wish to God images like these could provide them,” she says. “I find, after all this, I’m left, mostly, with more questions. But if there’s a central thread here, maybe it’s just about treading softly as we move through the world.”

“Legacy of an Ecocide: Agent Orange Aftermath,” an installation of photographs by Petronella Ytsma, will be on view at St. Catherine University, in the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery, through Oct. 31. The related symposium and panel discussion — scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 27, from 2 to 4 p.m. in the J’eanne d’Arc Auditorium — is free and open to the public. Exhibition catalogs are available for purchase at the gallery; a portion of the proceeds from each sale will be donated to the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery and to the families directly affected by the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

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