Tag Archives: northern Thailand

Making the most of travel photography

The RPS (Royal Photographic Society) included an article I wrote in its Travel Group Travelogue Newsletter after I chatted to some members about my photography. While I haven’t made as many overseas trips to support non-profit organisations as I would like, I do have plans for more. It is an incredibly rewarding aspect of travel photography so I’ve reproduced the article here, with some different images.


Rewarding Travel Photography

When I retired early from a stressful career with an international energy company I decided to re-engage with my creative side, develop my photography and to travel in a way that allowed me to get to know other cultures. Although I enjoyed these photographic adventures I still felt a lack of purpose and I wondered: “why am I making these images” and more importantly, “why am I here at all”?

Life has a way of solving such dilemmas. When a friend contacted me in 2009 to talk about her charity Testigo Africa, a project to bring clean drinking water to a Masai village, I immediately said “If you need a photographer, just ask me”. She did and a month later I was in Arusha, Tanzania. Tracey wanted images to help her fundraising efforts; the area had suffered a terrible drought and water was scarce, livestock dying and food hard find. It was my first really close encounter with another culture and I was very inexperienced but the warm welcome and friendliness made it a pleasure. The warriors slaughtered and cooked a goat we had paid for and the women prepared vegetables. They sat apart to eat but we were treated as honorary men. We drank tea in mud huts, met Masai of all ages, enjoyed the Masai adumu (dance) and watched the women making beautiful beaded jewellery. Iwas able to capture it all.

Tracey started the charity to help the women who walked miles every day to collect water, leaving them little time to do anything else. I returned with Tracey in 2012 for the inauguration of the water supply and to photograph her wedding to Emanuel, a Masai who has become part of her team. They have since established a football academy and a perma-culture project in many villages. Women can now grow enough food to sell in addition to feeding their families.

One of the many rewarding aspects of my second visit was sharing prints from the first trip and noticing how much the women had blossomed with good nutrition and less stressful lives. My images were used in a variety of ways by Testigo: calendars, video presentations, exhibitions and greetings cards. It was a privilege to be involved.

My appetite whetted, I joined a volunteer trip in 2011 with a charity helping prevent human trafficking in the villages of Northern Thailand. We travelled with the director, essentially funding his journey, to isolated villages where he works with village heads to change ingrained attitudes and traditions. The hill tribes comprise immigrants from Myanmar, China and Laos who have for generations lived a frugal existence unacknowledged by Thai authorities. Life is hard and gangs offering loans to families are repaid by the children working in the fields, factories and brothels. The charity approaches the problem with re-education rather than disapproval as the practices have continued for generations. We stayed with families, often sleeping in their beds, ate with them and through our guide were able to get to know them a little. I found it a very difficult trip emotionally, but felt some satisfaction when the charity used many of my images on their website.

Later in 2012 I travelled to Cape Town with Momenta Workshops to work with non-profit organisation James House, which supports the township of Mandela Park. An introduction to photojournalism, I was put in touch with James House and had daily critiques of my plans and images from the Momenta expert. I had to develop my own resources, work independently and I learned a lot. Two hundred and fifty fully processed images, which were used in their annual report, had to be completed before I left. I also developed a personal project called the “Little Chair” involving clients and staff of James House.

Medellin in Colombia is next for me, to attend another Momenta Workshop. I hope to be paired with a non-profit supporting women, to improve my Spanish and further develop my skills. To enrich the experience I always include side trips; going on safari, attending festivals and finding additional opportunities for travel photography. I cannot recommend non-profit work highly enough. It’s humbling, rewarding, often challenging and a unique way to connect to the world through your camera lens.

Website: lauramorganphotography.co.uk

Facebook Page: facebook.com/pages/Laura-Morgan-Photography/146565008692998

Laura’s Advice:
• Find a cause you feel passionate about and be clear about your motives for volunteering.
• Research non-profit organisations carefully and either contact them directly or look for a company that supports such trips (see links below).
• Understand the organisation’s expectations, most likely they will want images that reflect their success in helping people, not heart-breaking images of illness or poverty.
• Be open, genuine and positive and really connect with the people you meet!

Momenta workshops: www.momentaworkshops.com highly recommended.

Photographers Without Borders: www.photographerswithoutborders.org No personal experience but has been recommended to me.

Kaya Volunteer: www.kayavolunteer.com – helpful for a first time volunteer but doesn’t specialise in photography.

Project Exposure: www.projectexposure.org – I do not have personal experience of this organisation.

Photovoice: www.photovoice.org – participatory photo projects.


Project South Africa 2013 Rural Life, Oltepesi, Longido (8)

Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand

Project South Africa 2013 Grid for blog _MG_3330 tarnished iron mod V2

Villagers in Oltepesi look at photos from 2009

Villagers in Oltepesi look at photos from 2009

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.

Grid for blog

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.


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.




I’m a photographer, not an activist, but …

There are far too many injustices in our world. It’s overwhelming if you really think about it, even more so if you start to wonder what you can do. First comes impotence: “it’s too big an issue”“I can’t make a difference”“other people are better equipped”. Then perhaps a sense of guilt creeps in: ”I’ve got so much – surely I can (should?) do something?” But life intervenes and we move on, safe in the knowledge that others are sorting out the world. Or maybe that’s just me; after all I’m a photographer, not an activist. Nevertheless, those nagging thoughts prevail:isn’t there something I can do?”

So last year I joined the Human Trafficking Photography Expedition to Promote Social Change. I wasn’t sure what to expect, what we’d do and how I’d feel – but I was excited about an opportunity to develop my photography and learn more about a cause I feel strongly about (those nagging thoughts remember?)

I was a little apprehensive; would we encounter dangerous traffickers and see tragic and seedy sights? Would we even be allowed to take photographs? Would we cause more hassle than help? What in fact would we be doing? So many questions, most of which were not answered through my initial research or during our induction. In fact the reality was much more prosaic. We visited hill tribe villages in Northern Thailand and we encountered nothing but friendliness and warm hospitality. Five of us in a four-wheel drive, or with our guides and curious villagers in a truck, moved between the villages in relative (if bumpy!) comfort. We did trek one day and there was a lot of walking with cameras – but all in all it wasn’t physically arduous. I was both disappointed and relieved. Our accommodation was very basic: other people’s mattresses, sharing beds and extremely simple (but always clean) toilet and washing facilities. Not five-star but considerably better than I’d expected.

So what does this have to do with human trafficking, slave labour and the sex industry? At the time it was confusing. Where was the evidence? What was the issue? These were lovely, kind people. Gorgeous, fun-loving children. Poor but proud villagers eking out a living in remote areas. Nothing nasty or frightening here?

But as the trip progressed we learned that poverty and lack of citizenship was far more insidious that it might appear. This post isn’t to explain the issue of trafficking in Northern Thailand; there are links below that do that more eloquently. But it’s with hindsight, processing the photographs and trying to figure out how I can tell this story, that I feel such sadness. It was truly delightful meeting these children, playing with them and taking and sharing photographs, but pretty photographs hide a stark reality and a vulnerability that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I’m still struggling with a way forward (after all, isn’t there something I can do?) …

Links for more information about the issue:





This baby girl’s mother is a teenager working in the village brothel. It’s likely to be her future too. She may be even be a “lucky” one who makes it to Bangkok or Pattaya to earn even more money for the family …

Giggling and happy now, in a few years they will probably be working in the village brothel, helping support their families.

Giggling and happy now – such gorgeous little girls! But in future it’s possible their extremely poor parents may solicit loans from traffickers who promise the girls good jobs and opportunities in the city … that future most likely to be enforced labour and / or prostitution.

Not at school. May never be educated. Guess what her options are?

Not at school. May never be educated. Guess what her options are?

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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A better life?

S and her mother contemplate a brighter future for the younger woman.  At seventeen and already a mother herself, she lives in a small village in Northern Thailand.  Her baby was taken from her by the father, as is common with unmarried girls like S. She had been a sex worker but now her sole occupation is looking after her mother. I suspect her mother is capable of looking after herself, she certainly isn’t that old, but she has come to rely on S entirely.

They live in extremely impoverished circumstances: a hut furnished with two sleeping mattresses and cooking utensils. Nothing else. The bamboo creaks and gives spectacularly as we gingerly step inside. S shows us her birth certificate, the first, essential document she’ll need if she applies for Thai citizenship. Like most of the villagers, she is a descendent of immigrants with no rights to education or recognition by the Thai government. She is hopeful that an organisation like COSA can help her find work and become a citizen. With virtually no education her options are limited but vocational training could provide her with skills to work as a domestic or in the hospitality industry.

The greatest challenge may be her mother; can she conceive of a better future for her? Will she let her go …..

Contemplating a better future ...

Contemplating a better future …

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.






Pan’s story, perhaps …

It’s early morning in Huay Junn Si. Pan’s father has brought a net of fish back for breakfast, small wriggly silver fish from the nearby lake. He must have been up even earlier to catch them or maybe he bought them from an enterprising fisherman. Pan is around twelve years old. She guts and cleans the fish with skill and speed. Her friend looks on while piglets snuffle in the mud beside them. In the background is an older girl with a young baby. She’s a sex worker and the building she squats in front of is the local brothel. She’s unmarried and her baby is unplanned, but not necessarily a result of her work. She’s a relative of Pan; most people in this small village are related in some way.


Pan’s family have stayed the night in the house that serves as a brothel, they’ve moved out of their home to let us sleep there. The irony is that this household is interested in working with COSA to help the girls being trafficked, yet their’s is the largest house in the village and they may (possibly) derive some income from the brothel. It’s difficult to know; a lot of what I can relate are suppositions based on COSA’s experience of working with the hill tribes. Predictions of what might be happening or will happen to these people, nothing more.

Two of us sleep in Pan’s room, on a mattress I suspect she shares with at least one sister or brother. It’s as chaotic and messy as any child’s might be and dusty and dark. It has a mirror and a little dressing table with pink bits and pieces scattered on it. I find drawings of a princess beside the bed. This little girl has dreams.


She is pretty and clean and tidy despite her surroundings but her future is not necessarily bright. Although there is a preschool locally, there is no other school for Pan to attend. Education is the key to offering opportunities to these children. But government funded primary schools are few and far between in this area, even if families can afford the books and uniforms. Most of the hill tribe villagers have come from Burma, Laos or maybe China, often generations ago. There are many different tribes: Akha, Lahu, Yao, Lisu and Karen, amongst others. Most don’t have formal national identity, forming a large disenfranchised population and making it extremely difficult to find legitimate work. No papers .. no job.


Many young girls start their working life in the local brothel. It’s culturally ingrained for the teenage girls to help support their family and many will be sold or given into this line of work. They expect it and neither they nor their parents recognise this is a problem. They are proud to be earning money for their parents. The age of consent in Thailand is eighteen but tradition in hill tribes means girls as young as twelve may be trafficked for sex.

One needs to be clear though, the sex industry is not just something servicing Western appetites with planeloads of men coming to Bangkok or Pattaya on sex holidays. This is integral and endemic in Thailand, particularly the North. As they grow older, some girls may travel onto the more lucrative sex industry in Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Either through choice or as directed by their family. Most are not kidnapped or smuggled or coerced against their will as we might assume. This is simply the way it is here.

We don’t know if this is Pan’s future, but the chances are it will be. I hope not. She might be one of the lucky girls who make it to a COSA shelter.


The elderly matter too …

Downtime back at the Baan Suu Yuk Shelter so I’m playing on my iPad. Frustrating not to have access to Lightroom and a 24″ screen, but wondering if simplicity is better? Snapseed does a pretty good job and if the photos are well taken then I shouldn’t have to process much? Right!

As well as lots of lovely children, we met many real characters on our travels. Not least of all the elderly man smoking what I believe was some form of hallucinatory drug. It certainly had an extremely pungent aroma and given the level of “chill” it induced, well I have to make some assumptions! We were at an exorcism when we met him. That is a whole other story …..

There were so many fascinating people, all with stories of hardship etched on their faces. But without exception they were patient and welcoming (stoned or otherwise!) and happy to have us record their images.

Here are some of the more memorable …


It’s all about the kids ..

This trip has made me think even more about what’s appropriate to post when meeting and learning about other people around the world. In the UK we are all about privacy and model releases and respect for our subjects, yet somehow that seems to be thrown out the window as we travel in other countries. It’s as if everyone is fair game for the photographer. People are often treated as if they were animals in a zoo, there for the pleasure of the traveller rather than real people.

Exploring other cultures is a rich and varied experience and as I’ve said before, one you hope is rewarding for the people, you encounter as well as yourself. We have certainly tried to ensure that on this trip, requesting (with sign language mainly!) permission to shoot, sharing the images afterwards and ensuring there is full engagement where possible. People in the hill tribes have been open, friendly and hospitable. One girl in a market gave me bananas as a thank you for taking her photo. People always laugh or grimace with wry humour when shown their image. They laugh at us, a lot! A woman behind me muttered “photo, chicken, photo” whilst shaking her head in bemusement. Sometimes we are the entertainment I suspect.

The tribes here are migrants from China, Burma and Laos mainly, having settled in Northern Thailand over many generations. The Akha, Karen, Yao, Lisu, Lahu and Hmong among others all have their different identities, dress and food. Some get along, others don’t. In the main though their lives are hard, much harder than most of us can imagine. Their food, while delicious, is hard come by and tends to be rice based .. or just rice. They scrape a living, have limited or no access to education or medical assistance.

But the people we met were generous and friendly. The kids were delighted to have us to play with. They loved being photographed and seeing their pictures. Their parents looked on with amusement. I hope they know we are taking these images with love and a good heart …

Ultimately the trip is all about the kids …













Trekking in Thailand …

So much for regular updates … apart from lack of wifi access most of the time, it’s been difficult to decide what to say. The issues we’ve come to observe and document (in terms of human trafficking) are complex and we’ve at best had a very superficial exposure to the root causes in this area of Northern Thailand.

I do plan to share the stories, but want to mull over the experiences some more. However I can update you on our trekking experience! We only trekked for one day … which was a shame in some ways … but that one day was certainly an adventure. It was longer than expected and considerably steeper as the guides got slightly confused. Not surprisingly, it was fairly dense hillside jungles and they needed a machete to cut through the undergrowth in some places. One guide was from the village we’d stayed the night before, he acts as a liaison between COSA and the head of the village. The other, who did the cooking, was Burmese, formerly a doctor in the military. A good guy to have on this type of trip!

Going up was tough, coming down was even tougher. We probably climbed and descended for around 6 hours, slipping and sliding sweatily, extremely grateful for the bamboo walking sticks we’d been cut.

Bamboo is a magical thing … the guides cooked in it and whittled cups, spoons and chopsticks from it. Plus it offered us protein, in the form of the ‘bamboo borer’. The tiny white caterpillar is a Thai delicacy that lives inside bamboo. Although I was sure I wouldn’t try them I did eat two. They were boiled in water, in bamboo over the fire, were a bit squishy and not something I’d ever try again! We saw them later, dried, in the markets.

Apart from our worms we had boiled eggs and rice served in a banana leaf and a welcome cup of coffee. Although the guys had (obviously!) taken the eggs and rice, everything else was collected and fashioned on the trek. I still have my bamboo utensils!

The trek was from Ban Khun Suay to Huay Jan See, from one home stay to another. In each village the family we stayed with gave up their beds (usually mattresses) and bedding and crammed in together or in one case moved out! It was a very different form of accommodation but gave us much more of an insight into the way people live in these remote villages.

Some images from the trek …