Remembering Vietnam

For some, the Vietnam War is a faded memory – ‘just another chapter in their history book at school,’ explains Tobias Nicolai. But for others it’s still very much real he says of his series on the effects of chemical warfare ­– a stark reminder of a history we must never forget.

11.jpg#asset:746© Tobias Nicolai, from the series The Inheritance from the Vietnam War

"Wars do not end when the leaders agree on a truce, or when the bombs stop falling from the skies," says photographer Tobias Nicolai. "Societies feel the devastating effects of war for many years to come."

And such is the case with Vietnam, a country still plagued by the Agent Orange pesticide sprays over large areas of mangrove jungles, which the US government carried out during the Vietnam War in its attempt at “deforestation” – to make it difficult for communist guerilla fighters to carry on hiding in the thicket.

When sprayed on the foliage from the skies, the pesticide would quickly strip trees of their leaves, revealing anything below the canopy. But Agent Orange also stripped humans of their skin and blighted the lives of many.

06.jpg#asset:743© Tobias Nicolai, from the series The Inheritance from the Vietnam War

Four decades later, the campaign is known to have caused untold land contamination, environmental damage, devastating birth defects and ill health in villagers still exposed to the toxic remnants in soil. An estimated 100,000 of the affected are children.

"By highlighting how the Vietnamese still suffer from the warfare of decades ago, I can show, in a physical embodiment, that the civilians in a war-stricken society are affected by war for many years to come," says Nicolai of his series, The Inheritance From The Vietnam War.

"The lasting consequences of the Vietnam War are proof that in war, civilians will almost always pay the highest price. I wanted to show the extremely horrible damage that chemical warfare has done to children born 30, 40 years after the war ended. I also wanted to show that many of the victims, so many decades later, are kids." And though they laugh and play just like children everywhere, the legacy of that war lives on in them, he explains.

04.jpg#asset:744© Tobias Nicolai, from the series The Inheritance from the Vietnam War

Nicolai’s own childhood was spent in Als – a small island in the southernmost part of Denmark. He spent much of it skateboarding in the outdoors. Now 28, he looks back with fondness, saying it was a typically Danish adolescence in nature.

His father was an amateur photographer and bought him a small Olympus point-and-shoot, which he used, in his words, to collect memories. "If I have to pinpoint one thing that ultimately led to me being a photojournalist, it must be when my father gave me his old analog Minolta – a camera he bought when he was in his twenties. The camera, which he traveled with and used to photograph our childhood, was also the camera I learned to shoot on; it really got me into photography," says Nicolai.

Tobias-Nicolai.jpg#asset:1081© Tobias Nicolai, from the series The Inheritance from the Vietnam War

He’s currently studying photojournalism at the Danish School of Media and Journalism (DMJX). As part of the four-year BA degree program, he interns at the Danish daily newspaper, JyllandsPosten. "I was interested in doing the story on Vietnam because the subject seems to have faded from a lot of people’s memories, even though the effects linger on for so many. For younger generations, the Vietnam War is just another chapter in a history book on the curriculum."

"Last year marked 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War. My hope was that this 40-year anniversary would be helpful in getting the story some exposure, and hopefully remind people of what we must not forget."

To learn more about The Inheritance From The Vietnam War, visit Tobias Nicolai's PHmuseum profile.

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