HIV to Golf
November 2009

by Justin Mott

Outside, the garbage lady was ringing her bell as she pushed her cart down my small neighborhood alley in Hanoi. She comes every night and rings the bell so that everyone can bring out their garbage. She is one harbinger of the evening. I was packing my belongings and preparing to move into a new house the following day when my phone rang. It was a familiar number, a writer from The New York Times that I often work with.

© Justin Mott for The New York Times
Students study in small numbers at the Mai Hoa AIDS Center in An Nhon Tay, Vietnam, because these HIV-infected children from the orphanage were turned away from a nearby primary school last month when the parents of the other students refused to allow their children to attend.
He was in the country covering a recent typhoon that swept through the Philippines, then hit Vietnam. The damage in Vietnam wasn't as devastating so I hadn't been assigned to cover the story. The writer, however, decided to stay an extra week and do some stories.

He asked if I could get on a plane that night or the following morning to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). I love working with this particular writer and didn't want to miss the opportunity so I called in some favors to have my stuff moved while I was away.

The next morning I was on a plane leaving Hanoi and headed to HCMC. He picked me up at the airport with his assigned government minder from the ministry of Foreign Affairs and I was briefed on our stories.

We were headed straight to an orphanage for children who are HIV-positive. Our story was about an incident a month prior when these 15 HIV-positive children started attending a public school. The first day they showed up the parents of the other children pulled their kids from the school.

© Justin Mott for The New York Times
Local volunteers stop by the Mai Hoa AIDS Center, bringing toys and snacks for the chidren. Fifteen HIV-infected children from the orphanage were turned away from a local primary school last month when the parents of the other students refused to allow their children to attend. Ignorance and discrimination are widespread in Vietnam and almost none of the country's 5,000 infected children have been accepted in state schools, despite a legal requirement to do so.
I didn't really have time to process the story as I read the brief on the 30-minute ride from the airport. We had plans for another story later that afternoon so I only had a small window to get enough pictures for print and for an online slideshow.

© Justin Mott for The New York Times
Children at the Mai Hoa AIDS Center in An Nhon Tay, Vietnam, eat lunch after their morning studies.
I'm a goofy person and it's my nature to be silly around children, but I needed natural shots so I had to restrain myself and try to bore them enough so they would forget about the tall, bearded white man. I floated around the orphanage and did my best to capture a small part of their everyday lives in the few hours I had. Halfway through the shoot I began to feel really sad when I thought about how it must have felt for them to be turned away from school. They were probably so excited about their first day at a public school.

No child should feel like an outcast like that and it was just disheartening. I was aware that my very presence photographing them would just be a reminder of their experience at school and that added to the sadness.

I gave up on trying to be serious and decided to be silly and goofy with them after that and I just shot what I saw and we all had fun. We left after a few hours and my focus switched to our next – very different – story on golf course leases.

I'm not sure what to make of things but I must say I felt kind of strange looking through my edit a few days later before filing. I couldn't help notice that I approached both stories the same way: looking for nice light, moments and composition in the environment I was presented with and, at moments, losing a bit of my humanity. While this is an automatic response of my trade, it is, I think, an unfortunate one. For my long-term projects I'm very attached the people and subject; I'm really there mentally when I shoot. I guess it scares me that when I'm only given a short time for a serious story, I can turn off that attachment, if only for a little bit.

© Justin Mott

Justin Mott is currently living in Hanoi working as a freelance photojournalist and videojournalist, taking assignments and working on his personal stories and multimedia projects. His clients include The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Discovery Channel, The Independent (UK), L'Express, Business Week, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Global Exchange and various other publications and NGOs.

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