A photographer’s journey from Block Island to Vietnam
For a small town boy growing up in Greenville, Rhode Island, as Justin Mott did, living and working in exotic places may have seemed like nothing more than a dream. However, the young man who is today an award-winning photographer (and who at one time interned for The Block Island Times), has made his home in Vietnam since 2007. There he balances his work between editorial and commercial photography.
Always inquisitive about the lives of those around him, he is not put off by difficult circumstances or by disturbing issues as he accepts assignments and uses his camera for story-telling. In that light, he has poignantly documented the plight of young Agent Orange victims he’s found in an orphanage just outside of Hanoi.
In his press materials, he describes how he documents drug addiction and human trafficking in Cambodia and other countries of Southeast Asia. At the same time, he punctuates his editorial work by employing documentary techniques in the service of destination and wedding advertising clients.
Acknowledging he needs these clients to help him keep economically afloat, he explains that he has turned the same creative attentiveness and energy to business projects, as he does to journalistic ones. To that end he has created “Mott Visuals: Commercial Photography and Film.”
An example of such an endeavor is an artistic film Mott created for Song Saa, a secluded and exquisite island resort and spa destination in Cambodia. In the video, Mott depicts the lush and romantic setting just awaiting newlyweds or others seeking a retreat from the everyday world.
Writing the scripts, shooting and editing his own documentaries, Mott has taken on video assignments for both editorial and commercial clients. These have included The New York Times, the Smithsonian, the Discovery Channel, The North Face, the BBC, InFocus Asia, Redux Pictures and Newsweek.
Because his wide array of projects takes him around the world, by the time this newspaper catches up with Justin by phone, he is visiting friends and family in San Francisco.
Noting that while he grew up on a street called “Appleseed Drive surrounded by ripe apple orchards.” He is not related to the applesauce Motts, but rather to the island family of the same name.
Mott’s island roots go back to his grandfather Samuel Mott who, along with his siblings, once owned the Spring House. At different times, members of the family have also owned the Narragansett Inn, Dead Eye Dick’s and Smuggler’s.
Speaking of his dad (who has passed away), Mott said, “My connection to the island is through my father, Alton Mott, [who] truly made the island special for all of us. He grew up there at the Narragansett.”
When Alton Mott was a young man he worked at the Spring House, where he met the woman who would become Justin’s mother, Joanne. Of the island and his father, Mott said, “I have the most fond memories of being at Dead Eye’s and long days at the beach with my father. I’ve travelled all over Asia and explored many distant places, but Block Island is still one of my favorite places in the world.”
Though his parents divorced when he was six years old, Justin continued coming to the island, where he worked summers.
At 21, Justin says “with only $200 in my pocket,” he landed in San Francisco. Living with his brother, he took a job bar-tending and then attended San Francisco State University, originally majoring in journalism.
He says a photography professor “who really pushed us, woke me to photojournalism.” Justin discovered the camera “was all about going out... getting out there... getting out to have a [direct] look at the homeless, at heroin addicts,” at how people were living. He quickly became engaged in the personal stories he was uncovering.
He said, “Bartending [also] forced me to talk with people of all ages.” In taking up photojournalism, Mott realized he had to “get people to open up.”
A year before he was to graduate, in 2007, Mott traveled to Southeast Asia for a photography workshop. During that time he went on assignment for the French magazine L’Express, which sent him to explore the emerging middle class of Ho Chi Minh City.
“I fell in love with [it] and eventually settled in Vietnam. I realized I wanted to be a freelancer.” And in the process he learned, “I was made for telling stories.”
What followed was a relationship with The New York Times, as a documentary and assignment photographer. “I started my career with The Times instead of finishing school,” Mott said. “I stayed here and never looked back.”
However, it was while browsing in a bookstore in the States that Mott came upon the work of Philip Jones Griffiths, a Magnum photographer, who spent much of his career documenting the human toll of the Vietnam War. Magnum Photos is a cooperative of international photographers whose goal is chronicling and interpreting world events and people.
Mott was drawn to Griffiths’ focus on the victims of Agent Orange — the defoliant used by the United States during the Vietnam War. Griffiths has had a profound influence on his work, Mott said.
As Mott looked at pictures of deformed fetuses, of maimed and malformed children and adults, he says he found himself weeping. The stories that unfolded compelled his return to Vietnam.
Not far from Hanoi, he discovered the Ba Vi Orphanage. Of the children at the center, 124 are believed to be third-generation Agent Orange victims, though generally not much is known about their families. For those children — of whom 80 percent are mentally disabled — there is one doctor, two nurses and six caretakers. According to Mott, the children spend their days in wooden chairs or in communal beds.
Some who, it is feared, may harm themselves or others are kept in iron cages overnight and during their afternoon naps, he said. “The majority of the children will live their entire lives at the center,” Mott pointed out. “[They] live a life without recreation, education or physical therapy.” There is no planned activity to engage or stimulate them.
Among the youngsters Mott has met is Nu, who is autistic and lives at the center. Her full name is Dang Thi Nu, he said, and “she is blind, mostly deaf and cannot speak.” Justin says he met her while doing his own research on Agent Orange victims.
Arriving at the orphanage, he writes in his blog that he was initially greeted by a number of children kicking soccer balls and skipping rope. After stopping to joke with them, he found himself wandering through a “large plain building, labeled T5.” It was “dark inside,” he wrote, “and as I closed the door the laughter of the children faded and I was drawn to a soft consistent humming.”
He describes finding Nu: “Underneath a staircase, alone in the darkness, a little girl sat with her head buried in her chest, humming a tune over and over again, unaware I was there. That was the first time I saw the girl named Nu who was to become an important part of my life.”
He told The Block Island Times that confronting the “complete isolation” in which the child lived “left me empty.” He added, “I knew that moment I wanted to tell Nu’s story, and I was certain doing so would somehow ease her suffering.”
Her condition, he points out, is “believed to be linked to Agent Orange poisoning because her grandfather was exposed to the chemicals while fighting in the war, and her father also suffers from severe mental disorders.” Nu’s parents eventually gave her up, although for some time she would spend two weeks a year with her grandparents, Mott said, “They are in their high eighties and don’t want her anymore.”
Since discovering Nu, Mott said, “I’ve been trying to help her.” Sometimes he just sits with her and holds her hand. In the end, he’s done a photographic series — an essay —depicting the abject reality of her life. He noted “the reality is that I’m working with a group and we’ve raised $7,000.” He explains the group does not want to give a large sum directly to the center; rather they are on a pay-as-you go basis to assure Nu will receive ongoing medical care and “three squares.”
A Vietnamese mother
Mott learned of Nu and the other children from “Mrs. Thuy, who became like my Vietnamese mother.” He quickly added, “My mother’s amazing, but Mrs. Thuy is definitely my Vietnamese mother.”
She helped him “in every way” — teaching him the language and helping him find an apartment. Noting she teaches at a government school, Mott says, “She even made sure” there were parents of her students who would purchase his photographs.
Of life in Vietnam, Mott said the people are very friendly. “They call me Mr. Justin.” And it is clear that he loves the country and the people. In meeting Vietnamese photographers, he discovered “a break from American competitiveness.” His colleagues are “not at all competitive. These guys are very sharing; they openly talk about their work.”
Never be able to tell all the stories
In both Cambodia and Vietnam, everywhere he turns his camera, he adds “I love the vibrant colors, the backgrounds, the textures.” As to the narratives he points his camera toward, he says “I’ll never be able to tell all the stories that are there.”
However, his efforts at storytelling continue, whether through still or video photography. In fact, his own story and recognition of his work have been picked up by History Channel Asia, for which he has just finished filming a program. “It’s a reality show where I go head-to-head against a local photographer in five different countries with photography challenges.” he said. Sponsored by Canon, the show will air throughout Asia in September.
In December of 2013, Mott won first prize in Travel Photographer of the Year in the category of “One Shot Extraordinary.” His photo, entitled “The Elephant and the Swimmer,” was taken in Phuket, Thailand.
In an interview released upon winning the prize, Justin spoke of the work that’s been the most gratifying to him: “The series on Agent Orange,” he said, “is what I’m most proud of. People have emailed me and made donations to the orphanage after they see the work. I got into photography to make people feel something from my pictures and that series has had the most impact of any other body of work I’ve done.”
Those wishing to learn more about or contribute to the orphanage in Vietnam may contact Mott at email@example.com.