When photographer Philip Blenkinsop and Time’s writer Andrew Perrin met members of the Hmong tribe in the Lao jungle, they were greeted by crying tribe members on their knees.
For 30 years, the Hmong had been hiding in the jungle, suffering the consequences of their covert support of the United States during the Vietnam War. Many Hmong were forced to migrate after the war to areas where they could not maintain their traditional ways of living. Those who stayed behind fought a low-level guerrilla war against the Lao government from secret camps in the jungle. When Blenkinsop and Perrin came to their camp in 2003, the Hmong believed that the journalists were Americans coming to the rescue.
The aftermath and legacy of the Vietnam War can be traced throughout the World Press Photo collection. The unification of Vietnam after three decades of war and the establishment of a communist state in 1976 did not immediately lead to peace. Continued fighting between Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia ended in Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the capture of Phnom Penh in January 1979. The invasion caused a mass migration within Cambodia, while at the same time thousands of Vietnamese took to the sea in rickety boats, fleeing the communist regime. Photos by David Burnett, Terry Fincher, Richard Leman Olsenius and Hilmar Pabel showed their plight, which caused international concern as many failed to survive the passage to other Southeast Asian countries.
That same year, Russian photographer Leonid Yakutin made a photo story called “On the land of Vietnam”, offering a quiet view of the country’s daily life. The story was awarded the one-off United Nations Award, intended for stories depicting positive developments in what were then called third world countries. However, the photos were in such contrast with the other winning pictures of Cambodian refugees and Vietnamese boat people, that World Press Photo was criticized for awarding a seemingly propagandistic view on Vietnam. Jury chairman Guus van der Heijden refuted the assertion immediately, but Soviet jury member Olga Suslova did seem to regard Yakutin’s prize as a somewhat personal triumph.
In the United States, Vietnam veterans had to cope with their physical and mental injuries, while readjusting from combat to civilian life in a society that did not offer much support initially. In 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was dedicated, commemorating those who served, and photographed by Chuck Fishman for Time. Life magazine published an award-winning story by Grey Villet about a Vietnam veteran being reunited with his Vietnamese girlfriend and their son after 11 years of separation.
Both American veterans and Vietnamese survivors suffered from the consequences of Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the US military to remove vegetation in South Vietnam in order to reveal the hiding places of the Vietcong. Between 1961 and 1971, the US Army sprayed huge amounts of defoliants, not only affecting those who came into contact with the highly toxic chemicals, but also disfiguring their children and grandchildren. Photo stories by Wendy Watriss and Marie Dorigny made painfully clear how people many generations and decades later could still suffer from the Vietnam War. Li, for example, was a young girl born with congenital defects that Ed Kashi photographed in 2010. It was not until 2012 that the United States and Vietnam began a cooperative clean-up operation, starting with the area around Li’s hometown of Da Nang where US forces had their main airbase and Agent Orange had been stored.