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One Night, Two Worlds

October 7th, 2008

Her story is like so many others, with one exception: she was able to make it out. Now, Somaly Mam is the head of the Cambodian non-governmental organization “Acting for Women in Distressing Situations” (AFESIP).

On 19 September, Somaly came to Seattle on a book tour. Her autobiography was updated and finally published in English. With her was a small entourage of her extended, adoptive family, for Somaly surrounds herself with the family she never had during her violently exploited youth. (at right: Somaly talks to a packed Elliott Bay Books)

I met Somaly in 2007 when I sent an email from Thailand, with no expectation of response. She responded with her cell, asking me to call when I arrived from Thailand, and thus my short week in Cambodia became occupied with photographing the work of AFESIP. The doors she opened for me were more than the heavy gates of the AFESIP compounds; the figurative awakening occurred as her staff took me on what I now realize is the “standard” media tour. For the human trafficking novice, it is harsh in its reality. From my research and time in Thailand, I knew the theoretical, but this was the practical and it was raw.

A year later, I was delivering materials to AFESIP from one of its sponsors in Seattle (stopexploitationnow.org) when I happened upon Somaly in their new offices. With her work comes a certain celebrity which keeps her moving, non-stop, across continents. Brightening with recognition, she invited me to an event welcoming Queen Sofia of Spain later that week. (read the blog post here)

And then, with seemingly similar chance, I found myself waiting for her arrival on a cool September evening. In my hometown. (at right: Somaly and one of the center girls whose name I missed–you’d think I’d be better with names, given my job)

Somaly’s talk was brief. She had one of the older girls from the center with her, who spoke through translation until it became too much; each talk means recalling the moments of victimization. They can be cathartic, but they are also difficult. As I looked around the room and heard some of the audience gasp quietly, I thought about what was affecting me. It wasn’t the presentation, for I’ve heard enough stories now to become inured. It had been speaking softly with Somaly’s adoptive sister, a woman I met in a popular expat cafe in Phnom Penh. She was on week 10 of not knowing where her adult daughter had disappeared to; no body, no leads, and the Cambodian police were closing the file.

She had turned to me while Somaly signed books, her quietly angry voice choked with tears. She asked, do I stay and fight or give up and leave? They told me, she continued, at least she’s only your adopted daughter. It took me right back to the over-worked exhaustion I felt when I left Phnom Penh in March; I felt there was too much to do and all of it had to be done right then. The immediacy was pressingly desperate. (at left: Somaly and Sofea on their way to the airport)

I left after the talk, while Somaly was signing books. We would meet again the next day, after her interviews and before she left for Los Angeles; it was brief, but relaxing. There was no trauma, there was no darkness, it was simply good to be able to speak freely, with familiarity, and welcome travelers to the drizzly streets of Seattle.

Lu and I returned to Wallingford; we were doing double-duty and had stopped by Chase Jarvis’s block party before the book signing. We returned in time to catch the last of three bands, the Saturday Nights, and dig into the barbeque laid out in warming pans. Chase had, literally, closed off the street for the party. Bouncers, gates, stage lights, staffed bar, dj, photo booth and one of those slow-cooking barbeque trailers provided the atmosphere his new, and trendy, studio space established. (at right: the saturday nights)

If you don’t know his work, Chase is a ski and snowboard photographer who is known as one of the “go-to” advertising and commercial photographers in the region. He and his staff, which includes his on-top-of-everything wife Kate, handle multi-day commercial shoots, complete campaigns with frenetic multi-destination locations, as well as video work and side projects that serve as portfolio pieces and something to keep the creative spark alive. They also have a dedicated Red Bull cooler and a selection of top shelf liquor perched above high-end Apple work stations.

As we drank our mojitos and talked with people I’d met at the Blue Earth Alliance fundraiser, I couldn’t help but think what a complete 180 this was. While Chase and his team give back substantially to the community (he is on the Blue Earth board, he runs a blog filled with resources…) this lifestyle I was experiencing, and enjoying, was built off of making pictures to sell stuff. If you read his blog, or do have done a commercial shoot, you know it’s hard work. But it is fun and doesn’t leave you nauseous at day’s end. It also pays, and for Chase, it pays well. Sadly, my work doesn’t. I look for handouts (grants and fundraisers). (at left: chase and friends)

I keep on talking about finding balance; trying to do what I feel is meaningful work benefiting others while still maintaining the ability to laugh and forget–if only for a moment. Being with people as fun as Chase and his team is one way and I found the evening a literal balance beam: Somaly on one end, Chase on the other.

And yet like Lu, who can appreciate the depths of developing world poverty but doesn’t forget her smile, in his commercial success and seemingly eternal psych, Chase understands the leverage he has to raise awareness to important issues and to give back. Were I to spend more time in the midst of such character, I too might find my mellow–without losing my focus.

(below: outside the studio, seattle trendy)

(below: cody, chase’s video guy late in the evening)

(below: Kate at right, Rebekah center)

(below: and chase. even later in the night.)

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