Cambodia: Voice and Choice

January 22nd, 2008

There is a debate, or maybe an argument, about whether one tells the stories and shows the faces of victims. Especially the children.

In the States it would be inappropriate, and in some cases illegal, to do so. However pictures from developing countries are often used in NGO promotional media, on websites, in large advertisements showing some poor starving kid in a Displaced Persons camp. Journalists–myself included–come in wanting to make images, to tell the stories, to “build awareness.” Those pictures travel the globe and personal pain becomes very, very public. (AFESIP Kampong Cham center director Keng Sochenda oversees mostly girls in their early teens, although some are younger. The center is deep in the countryside, hopefully far enough to avoid any retribution.)

Consider the eight months of contract negotiation I had in Seattle with Harborview Medical Center’s Community Relations Department to gain six hours of watched-over access to the emergency department. No pictures of patients that were identifying. Preferably no pictures of patients, because of HIPPA and the fear that family, or the patient, might sue the hospital for a violating right to privacy. Consider, also, they had to approve all the media I created. (In an emergency department in Arizona my negotiation was a matter of a couple of phone calls; their media department was much more accommodating).

Here in Cambodia the core question I hear, when addressing this developing-world standard about right to privacy is: “If this were your daughter who had been sexually exploited, would you want her image all over the news?” (at right: AFESIP girls return from the nearby school where they attend classes like any other student. Their afternoons are spent learning vocational skills like weaving or sewing, followed by chores and studying. This is an image about opportunity.)

It’s a good point, as media exposure can be re-traumatizing for victims. Later, especially for children, there may be regret for sharing their story. Or, for those who’ve been sexually exploited, having media around is simply another form of exploitation and may “trigger” a traumatic response, undoing what little counseling victims receive here–trauma therapy is a rare thing here. So, why put them through potentially more trauma? To tell an already over-told story that will make headlines only for a moment?

My job is to find the photographic moment in that story; couple that with the pressure of editors who want something strong. There is so much incredibly well done work out there already that if this story, and my work, are going to make it into the news cycle I have to make it unquestionably strong. Which means pictures of what is actually happening, not interpretations of it.

I’ve been asking many of the NGO people their opinion on this; one response, when asked if it were their daughter, was (to paraphrase): “If at 11 my daughter went public with a story of sexual exploitation and at 19 she regretted it, at least it would have been her decision.” (at left: Closer to Phnom Penh, a young resident of AFESIP Tom Dy, with her children. Stop Exploitation Now funded the child care center which makes her residency and vocational training possible; without the child care she would be unable to spend the time learning.)

This is an answer with broader meaning; in a meeting today with the Asia Foundation Counter Trafficking in Persons group, the theme came down to this: the *entire* country is paralyzed by the trauma of 30 years of genocide and civil war. It is catatonic, existing with the mentality that “life is hard, pain and suffering inevitable, so get used to it.” It is a mental space which perpetuates victimization and a loss of control.

The international community, over the last decade, has attempted to rectify the problem, with respect to trafficking, in various ways but according to a recent Asia Foundation report the community of ad-hoc NGO’s has largely failed. The “new” approach they advocate is to essentially hit the reset button. Start over, and start by supporting the Cambodian government and the Cambodian people because it is they who will change their lives and their futures, not us, not the NGO’s. Corruption is undeniably rampant, but Cambodia, as the victim, must learn to see it has a voice, that it has a choice. (at left: In the countryside of Kampong Cham. The heat was tolerable, but I could see how in July the intensity and quality of light could be described as “white hot.”)

So will my images be exploitive? I think you can argue yes and I think you can argue no. I believe to some degree all media is exploitive and that consent is the greatest issue. For me, building my portfolio with this work is the least of my concerns. Yes, strong work means greater visibility in international media, but strong work also means the story I am documenting is being told. That story is about how a victim is learning to choose and to speak for itself; human trafficking for sex, labor, or arranged marriage is not OK and it is the Cambodian people who must believe they can act on this.

Will I respect the individual’s or the NGO’s decision about photography? Absolutely. I have already proven I can work within these constraints. Do I look at a victim and confirm with him or her that photography is ok? Certainly. I haven’t spent six years working in the field of sexual violence to ignore the importance of choice and control. Will there be instances when this won’t be possible? Yes, and I will do my best at those times–with my first-world, western sensibilities–to determine what will and won’t be safe for the individual. It is still me making a decision for them–which can be seen as victimizing–but short of not doing this work it is the best (in this moment) I have to offer. (at right: A child resident of AFESIP Kampong Cham. I do not know this child’s story, I was simply asked to make some portraits of the residents. One thing I do know, is that every story of trauma is unique, but often the effects are quite similar.)

I think editors would cringe to read this; they are likely to say I need to be more hard-nosed. But this is how I feel about working with victims and survivors, based on many interactions and a growing understanding. T
his entry is more for the NGO’s who might read this blog when vetting me for work with them–I have found I preface nearly every conversation with this kind of background about myself and my methods. And some, I know, will never offer access. Most of them are US-based.

This entry is also for my readers who follow in a non-professional capacity. This is ethically delicate work. At one facility I was making portraits only to be told one of the children had HIV. “From the child’s mother?” I asked. “No, she was raped by her uncle.” Another was a “ward of the state” for her mother was in prison for selling the child’s sister.

How do you show that? Do you show that? We are a visual race with an ever-decreasing attention span; I hope to capture a moment so I can pull you in deeper, to see what part you play in human trafficking. We all have a role, even in our ignorance, for human trafficking is that complex. (at right: AFESIP Kampong Cham facility)

AFESIP: Acting for Women in Distressing Situations /

AFESIP provides A-Z services, from investigation to repatriation, with the victim shelter, retraining and education in between. It is one of the ‘bigger’ more powerful organization. Because of the investigation component, it puts itself at risk for retribution; a few years ago 80 girls were taken at gunpoint from an AFESIP facility after a brothel raid. Somaly Mam, the founder, has also suffered personal retribution from traffickers. Last year when I interviewed her she sighed “so tired, so tired” because she sees all the NGO’s tripping over each other–she understands there needs to be a unified plan.

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  1. Sarah says:

    Photos are sometimes all we have to express that which is unspeakable, and indeed, even unbelievable as to the depth of the atrocity….
    Who can look at the grainy black and white photos from WWII and not have the stark image of piled bodies seared into one’s memory?
    Many would recognize a lot of the Pulitzer photos; they define not only a moment, but some a whole conflict, or even an era….
    They reach out to us and say “Lest we forget…”.


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