Category Archives: Charity

I’m a photographer, not an activist … Part II

Okay – so maybe I will tell you more about trafficking, let’s face it, not everyone is going to delve deeper to learn more. It’s shocking and upsetting and it’s happening everywhere in the world, there are workers trapped in enforced servitude in chicken farms in the UK for goodness sake. But that’s another story. My experience was in the remote hill tribe villages of Northern Thailand. In this case it’s all about culturally ingrained ways of living that have little to do with the lucrative sex industry in Bangkok (although for many, that’s where it might lead).

While there are indeed gangs of dangerous traffickers that swoop in and abduct children and adults and force them to work in all kinds of industry from rice-picking to prostitution, polishing gems to domestic slavery (or some similar cliched image), there is also a much more subtly corrupting root cause: families.

Poor families without a means to change their circumstances, whose only asset is their children.

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TL: outside the brothel in the village centre. TR and BL: young village girls playing, none of them are in school. BR: young boys abandoned by their parents have been taken in by their grandfather.

You can’t and we didn’t judge these lovely people as we were welcomed into their homes. The tribes people, Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Yao and Lisu for example, are mainly migrants from China, living on subsistence farming in an area more and more depleted of natural resources. They are illegal immigrants, unlikely to achieve Thai citizenship and not entitled to education or help from the kingdom.

Over generations it has been the cultural norm to “monetise” those assets, as happens in other parts of both the developed and third-world countries. So why am I focusing on these people … the small children you see above? Because I met them. There is a personal connection, small and tenuous for sure, but it’s there. I played with them (cue silly photograph of me on a bike) and watched them play as children do, unselfconsciously and with joy. They have no idea what their future holds.

Me on bikeBut we do. Most of the young girls will work in the village brothel. It’s just another house in the village, no red light or dancing girls. It’s an ordinary house where the men of the village have sex with young women. Sadly, younger and younger girls are desirable. The boys are more likely to work in the fields, picking rice for hours on end. Some of the girls we met pick maize. We spoke to the girl on the far right (below); she was intelligent and funny but without the opportunity to go to school she and her sisters have a bleak future.

Some of the girls do end up in the big city. They return home smelling of perfume, with pretty clothes and money to feed the family … but not from “selling handbags”. The younger girls long to follow in their “glamorous” footsteps and so it goes on. One girl, home to visit the family, spoke English and told us she had an Aussie “boyfriend” whom she believed was going to marry her … her family was so proud and showed us a photo. I don’t hold out much hope to be honest.

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Sisters, having cooked breakfast, are heading off to pick maize.

And it’s sometimes worse, if that’s even possible; families may obtain a loan from traffickers and the children work it off. This can take years, if ever. And here it’s even seedier; promises are made of jobs and opportunities for the kids … but the reality is more often slave labour, imprisonment, rape and beatings.

Hard to imagine this situation? Think of your eight year-old child, out playing in the snow today or dashing around on her bike in summer, carefree and joyous. Just like the kids I met in Thailand. But despite complaining about school (all kids do!) she has a future and even in our uncertain economic climate, can you imagine selling her to traffickers?

No, I bet you can’t. But you’ve never had to. You haven’t lived in a family where this has happened generation after generation. Where the culture accepts it as the norm. Where there a few other choices. And sadly, where evil traffickers can take advantage.

The hill tribes are not bad people but they are victims of circumstance. The only way to change things is to offer alternatives … and that is what many charities are trying to do. It’s a softly, softly approach of re-education. It’s not about judging. In the case of the charity I worked with, it’s been about saving only a few girls, but surely that is better that than none at all. It’s meant some villages are aware of the dangers and are looking for other options for their children.

Small steps, but stepping forward nonetheless.

 

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Small things?

I’m still entering 2013 carefully … It’s a new year and I’m supposed to be full of plans and resolutions and bursting to make this the best year ever. Hmmm, not happened so far. I’m maybe getting too old (surely not) and jaded (me?) to believe that the plans I lay out on 1st January will come to fruition .. or, as I’m more inclined to believe, I have no idea what I want to do.

Not strictly true though. Photography is definitely involved. I know I want to find ways to use photography in a meaningful way … but a plan of action remains elusive. I keep wondering “what difference can I make?” But some steps could be taken immediately … for example I need to follow through on projects already begun. Indeed my trip to Thailand has not been fully explored; I have images to share and more research to do. I want to understand more about modern slavery and human trafficking. It’s such a huge and widespread issue. We should all be concerned.

During 2012 I met people in Thailand and Tanzania who have uncertain futures. They have little in the way of material things, many facing challenges in obtaining essentials like fresh water. They often expect little (although this is changing as the digital age becomes more accessible in far flung places). I on the other hand have comfort and time. My only dilemma: “what should I do?” Such luxury!

Making a difference is possible if we all do small things. Incrementally they add up. I just need to figure out what my ‘small things’ are! While suggestions are of course always welcome (!) I feel a bit more navel gazing coming on ….

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” Margaret Mead

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A broken heart …

We visited this old lady in Ban Kuhn Suay as Mickey, our photographer guide, wanted to see how she was faring. On his previous visit with MOSAIC (Medical Outreach and Social Aid in Communities, run by COSA) he’d asked how her health was and she’d sadly told him “her heart was broken”. The reason? She had no family supporting her and lived completely alone. She was extremely happy to have visitors and posed for photos with a warm, betel stained smile.

Her fate is not unique to the villages of Northern Thailand of course, elderly people all over the world struggle on without the support of their families. Some are fortunate to live in countries with social welfare or have communities or charitable organisations that can provide care.

Meeting her, spending some time, taking photographs and moving on certainly isn’t going to help, I am very aware of that. But she certainly touched our hearts. It was another reminder of the importance of cherishing the opportunities one has and to make the most of life. Important to remember that the next time I complain about the weather or some other minor inconvenience!

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Chop it all off please …

Walking through Huay Muang before breakfast we came across “outdoor hairdressing”; an elderly lady was about to have what looked like many years of hair growth chopped off with a massive pair of kitchen scissors.  She had been wearing what looked like a traditional Akha woven hat and was vigorously scratching her head as the hairdresser cut open her ponytail.  I can only assume that many years of having the hair tied up inside her hat had caused a scalp disorder or even an infestation as she looked extremely uncomfortable.  We stood and watched with the small group of women who had gathered nearby, having asked permission to take photographs.  The hairdresser (and I use the term loosely) combed out her long grey hair, which came down to her waist, and lopped it off to chin length.  Another woman gathered the hair in a plastic bag.  Having combed out the new style, her hair was again put in a (tiny this time) ponytail and she wandered off happily.

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