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Cambodia: The Volunteer

December 23rd, 2008

Kim Reed, a volunteer photographer with whom I now share a deeper friendship, sat across from me last night, a glass of wine in her hand as the twilight deepened. It was her last few hours in Phnom Penh and she was feeling frustrated, for reasons I understand all too well.

Kim started a wedding photography business (I met her when she shot my sister’s wedding) as a means of supporting her dream to do humanitarian work. Successful at 29, she is returning to what she wanted to do in the first place and so, with no journalism training and little research, she came to Cambodia to address the issue of human trafficking with photography. A bold task. (at left: Kim and morning email at Herb Cafe on St. 278)

Her first thought was to work with aftercare NGO’s–those are the non governmental organizations who care for victims of trafficking after they’ve been “rescued” from their circumstance–but found little response. It’s a touchy subject and few organizations have the capacity to field short term volunteers. As a last resort, with her flight already booked, she signed up for a tour group in the hopes of seeing some of the countryside. That’s when I saw “Cambodia” in her Facebook status update and shot her an email. We’ve talked about working together before and so I offered to show her around and help her get what she could.

As we sat there, both glued to our laptops, I asked her if she felt regret for bailing on the tour group. Her answer was a fervent “no.” What I’d shown her–if I remember correctly and not in a self-congratulatory way–was more than she’d hoped for. And yet…I could see her frustration.

She said she needed more time. She wasn’t sure of her purpose, what she had image-wise, and that she didn’t have a single, complete story. Like myself, and like very, very few aftercare NGO’s or social workers out there, Kim believes that the best way to engage people back home–to engage anyone–is to tell an impact full narrative. To tell the story of a person. (at right: Kim in Sharky’s. A rock bar with working girls, it’s got the best burritos in town, even by American standards)

I’ve found that aftercare staff, the social workers and counselors, are extremely protective of their charges; they don’t want to risk causing further harm. More often than not foreign staff will speak about their work with a guardedness I feel amounts to “This is terrible business and you’re not special enough to know about it. Just believe me.”

From my perspective as a communicator I think this is counter productive; it doesn’t engage donors, create change, or allow victims to choose if they want to share their story. Especially when a victim is moving towards a survivor’s mindset or, even further, to a “thriver” as someone I met once called it. According to her, the thriver harnesses their trauma in a healthy way to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

However, please note that I’m not advocating that every single tourist, photographer, donor, visitor, or what-have-you should be allowed in to a shelter to see clients as if they were zoo animals. I advocate for a balance between the secrecy and the publicity.

What I found last year in working with Transitions Global is that they understood the importance of this, but at the same time respected their client’s wish for privacy or need for confidentiality due to ongoing court cases. Transitions is all about empowerment and choice; their media policy, which bears a social worker’s strong sense for protection and privacy, reflects this as well. (at left: Dinner at the MTV Exit concert consisted of one Coke)

As a small NGO, Transitions doesn’t have the budget to hire a creative team to do this sort of work. If I were billing commercial rates, it would be thousands of dollars just to do the reporting, never mind the post production. But like Kim on this trip I was here on my own dime, a volunteer, hoping to gain access in exchange for media–for a story that I’m still pulling together with no committed publication. There are too many factors; cost, timing, page space, editor relationships, whether it’s newsworthy enough for the publication’s market, and what all but the most egotistical artist wrestles with: will the work be good enough?

With Transitions Global, and a few other NGO’s, I was able to produce images and video which were subsequently used to communicate to their stakeholders what they were doing and why it was important. Website, brochures, posters and, for Transitions, they were able to provide content used in broadcast television–with tangible results. (see the first clip and the second clip)

Executive Director James Pond laid an inordinate amount of trust in me when he gave me full access to the Transitions center, and I think because of that he caught some flak. But what he gave me was a chance to start working on individual stories in hopes that they would lead to something fruitful.

As a storyteller herself, Kim wanted to do this too. She wants to use her skills to create an impact, to spread awareness, to educate, and to help victims of trafficking. I think she gave nobly of her time and resources to do so, for I didn’t hear her once say she was too good for anything. As she worked with me, she learned to set up remote strobes to aid in portraiture, she helped with video interviews, she kept reminding me of things I’d forgotten in my distracted (and physically sick) state of being. She too had food poisoning. In return I gave her insight and took her to places she wanted to see. But what Kim really did, that I believe shows her true desire to help, was shoot the mundane photography. (below: a child’s victim care packet from SISHA)

She worked with the notoriously guarded Daughters, an NGO with older victims of exploitation, to photograph images for their product catalog. She helped SISHA, another NGO that does difficult to photograph work, by shooting their Victim Care Packets, a bag full of essentials a woman or a child might need if they’re pulled from a brothel with only the clothing on their backs. You can buy one for $25. Kim also did the post production on a bunch of images I shot for an NGO staff retreat.

So as Kim sat there, both ready to leave but not wanting to, I reminded her of this what she’d done in her short time here. Or maybe I was reminding myself of what I’ve done. We, the storytellers, are seeking to share something that exhibits our narrative skill and makes a difference to the people who’s lives we record. But even if we don’t come away from it with a complete story, we’ve tried to do something. We can make the “boring” pictures which help communicate the need, like Victim Care Packets, or bicycles for the Transitions girls to get to school or jobs, or to support shelter food costs.

But I do understand Kim’s frustration. I’m stewing in my own too. She was here for two weeks. I’ve been following this subject for two years. Both are short times. I think of Ed Kashi who’s been documenting Kurdistan since before most Americans knew where Iraq was. Or Marcus Bleasedale, who I referenced in an earlier post, with his “Congo: Rape of a Nation” multimedia piece. He’s worked in the DRC for a decade. A decade.

These stories take time. They take funding. They take support from foundations, editorial publications, and people back home. So many of these stories are unlikely to make traditional editorial outlets and, if so, only for a day. With the web, it could be only for an hour. But we operate with the belief these stories must be told.

What I think these stories take are patience and tenacity. Solid research and strong relationships. And every now and again, the knowledge that even if it’s only a product shot or a personal slideshow to friends back home, that we’re making a difference. Especially to the person who asked you to share their story, because you listened and you’re doing your best to give them a voice. (below: Kim on our way to the Olympic Stadium)

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One Response to “Cambodia: The Volunteer”

  1. […] wedding, was going to Cambodia at the same time I was. I wrote about her in this blog on volunteers. It was great to get to know her better and, though our aims were a bit different, it was fun […]

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