January 12th, 2009
Mountain ridges, more like steep, forested hills, reach their fingers upwards from gauzy clouds. We are crossing the topographical boundary between Thailand and Cambodia; somewhere down there are the Khmer border towns of Poipet or Pailin, I’m not entirely sure of our flight path. The latter was once a Khmer Rouge stronghold and today, is still riddled with forgotten land mines. In the ground haze beyond lie the plains of central Cambodia. Phnom Pehn is rapidly approaching as our glide path takes us down from 31,000 feet.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve wandered through the bustle of Bangkok, lain in the soft sands of Tonsai and Railay, and swam in the warmth of tropical waters. While I photographed a wedding, it was more a trip of luxury. A vacation. I saw friends at play, I spent time romancing with Lu; we traveled and I didn’t think about work. Sure, I couldn’t help but watch the nightly bubbles of light on the horizon, the Thai squid boats, and think of the stories I’ve heard about labor exploitation. But I would consciously quell my desire to get on one of those boats and try to make images.
I’ve been checking in with my contacts in Cambodia, hoping to hear good news about access and the ability to photograph key components to this story. I believe they’re important parts, though difficult to negotiate because of access and ethics. But really, it’s not up to me. I can only be there and be prepared.
Aside from the flatness, the boredom of waiting, the noise, the dust, and the sickness, it’s this stagnation which frustrates me. I have a desire to move on. I didn’t come here to live, I came to tell a story about human trafficking, one whose stage is Cambodia. The individuals and the circumstance are unique, and because I’ve met the people, I’ve been drawn closer to Cambodia. But I also know this story happens in India, in Africa, Europe, the Americas, including the United States. It is global, and probably just as hard to tell where ever I go.
When I signed on years ago to do sexual violence work, I didn’t think I’d end up with a non profit in this field nearly a decade later. I was simply captivated by a story. But it’s taught me a lot; enough to have an idea about what I’m getting into by working on human trafficking. It’s not a story that’s easy to tell, it’s not one people really want to hear, it’s not published very much, and it’s a hard thing to cover on your own. Especially when I hear editors sigh and ask for a story they can sell, implying human trafficking isn’t a sought after story. Or, worse, editors who want to publish but bring their preconceptions to the light table; like the conversation I overheard about a mainstream hour-long news show requesting an NGO grant them access young girls screaming and crying in brothels. They wanted victims. True, I’m trying to photograph this too, but in the meanwhile I recognize and have taken the time to work on the periphery of the crime; where do victims come from, how do they heal, and what is being done to help change the issue? There is more to it than the young female victim; it frustrates me when it’s assumed this is the only valid news item.
We are sweeping low over the red and blue tile roofs of Phnom Pehn now. Dusty fields and muddy water cover the landscape below. I am commuting back to “work.” Only six more days. I hope it all comes together, for I’m not sure I really want to come back here. It wears me out, all this waiting. So we’ll see.
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