Tag Archives: thailand

Communicating through collage …

I visited the Photographers Gallery in London last week to see the Perspective on Collage exhibition – I was seeking inspiration. I want to find new ways to work with my images from Northern Thailand, to develop a mode of expression about human trafficking that goes beyond what the photographs alone can say. To more overtly show the destruction of lives and how young children are monetized and ruined.

The exhibition was thought provoking, mainly because I really didn’t enjoy much of the work, although some of Roy Arden’s work was intriguing. I couldn’t understand whether it was because the exhibition pieces weren’t that inspiring (?) or due to my lack of appreciation of the art on display. However the Laura Letinsky and Geraldo de Barros exhibitions did excite me; respectively “Ill Form and Void Full” and “What Remains” incorporated collage and photography in very different ways, creating images that drew me in and made me want to look again. I love collage and have longed to express myself using layering and juxtaposition of ephemera, photographs and physical materials such as paint and ink. But I find it difficult; when is the image just messy rather than a carefully thought-through combination … how do I know when to stop … which combination is most powerful … what works … what doesn’t!

So I have been experimenting with cutting up, tearing, sticking, pinning, crumpling and photoshopping. Who knows what might emerge? However I have removed the images I originally included in the post. It was brought to my attention that the use of currency, in particular Thai currency, and the way the images had been manipulated might cause offence and possibly break the law. Lèse-majesté I now know, is the crime of violating majesty, an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state and is taken particularly seriously in Thailand. (Source: Wikipedia).

While I believe that art and photography can and even should be provocative, it’s worth considering whether one’s “clever” idea actually undermines the point being made. (Hmmm … what is worse, defacing the image of a revered monarch or selling children into slavery? )


However it’s back to the drawing board but I hate a post without an image so here is an earlier, perhaps more cliched attempt at getting my message across …

Collage 18

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.




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



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!

4 for blog

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.






Eating an elephant?

Travelling hopefully with my camera will have to wait for a while as I return from the humidity of Asia to the icy blasts of England! All good things have to come to an end and like Loi Kratong, my trip is over.

I have hundreds of images to consider. A story of human trafficking to better understand. I continue to wonder, how do I share the issue in a meaningful way? What is the purpose of the trip and my photographs?

The old saying is ‘How do you eat and elephant … one bite at a time.’ And that is what COSA is doing. And wthout a doubt, they are doing a wonderful job, but they can only nibble away at a massive problem. There is absolutely no question that a few dozen girls saved is better than none; but what of the millions of others? And we are talking about millions of people, not just young Thai girls. The UN’s International Labor Organisation estimates that worldwide about 2.5 million people are victims of trafficking and over half of these people are in Asia and the Pacific. It’s mind-boggling. They are trafficked for many purposes: labour, farming, factory work and of course, sex.

Every country in the world is affected, people are taken from or transported to almost anywhere. We don’t ‘see’ it, not through lack of compassion I’m sure, more likely through lack of knowledge. It’s hard to believe that so many people are treated as commodities to be bought, sold and disposed of.

But, as with all ‘BIG ISSUES’, there is no point being overwhelmed by the odds against effecting major change … small steps, small bites of the elephant is a start …

So back to the end of the festival … Chiang Mai was a rubbish tip for only a few hours, an army of cleaners hit the streets and things were back to normal. Grudges, sins and regrets consigned to the River Ping and a new year beckoning … and for me, elephant hors d’oeuvres to taste …





Keeping it simple …

I find photographing people an exciting, challenging and sometimes stressful pursuit. The initial approach with a smile, camera at my side … judging the degree of openness in the potential subject and then hopefully successful capture and sharing of the image. Some laughter, a little shyness and a joyful shared moment if all goes well.

Some days I’m on a roll and find it easy, even when people decline (politely or otherwise), on other days it requires plucking up of courage and sometimes pure brass neck …

I’m getting more confident and enjoyed watching and learning from my travel companions … all of whom have their own style … each one created some wonderful images as we travelled through Northern Thailand. It was fascinating to see the different perspectives we took.

Yesterday I took a day off. My last day and I wanted to seek out inanimate, static and unresponsive objects … they couldn’t object and I needed to relax! So I wandered through the back streets of Chaing Mai looking for shapes and patterns, colours and contrasts and incongruity.

Here is my different take on Chiang Mai ….




Letting go of grudges …

The idea of floating old grudges down the river, of letting go my sins and looking forward to a blessed future is a beautiful idea. Here people do this every year on the full moon in November. This year if falls on 28th and Chiang Mai is buzzing with anticipation, full of visitors and industry. At every stall on every street and corner are people making the Krathong that will carry those sins away.

Men are sawing bamboo bases, stacks of banana leaves are ready to be folded and stapled into intricate shapes, flowers are in abundance and there are candles and incense sticks standing by, ready to be the final embellishment. There are school kids in a Krathong contest, stallholders making them to sell, in fact everyone is in in the act. They range from small and simple to larger more complex, intricate designs that cost as much as £2!

I am given one by the hotel (the Rimping Village, with the best service I think I have ever experienced) and wander down to the river Ping.

It’s early, the Krathong parade and the launch of thousands of the small offerings is yet to happen, but there are thousands of people already here plus food stalls, a talent competition and more Krathong for sale than you can imagine.

I light my offering a set it free … what grudges and sins am I letting go? In this country there is a sense of peace, a clear intention to live in the moment and to be patient. If I take nothing else away from this trip than learning to ‘be’ instead if ‘do’ then my life will change immeasurably …






Hot air and more …

I’m in Chiang Mai to celebrate Loy Krathong (one of its many names and spellings) along with thousands of visitors. It’s friendly, noisy, colourful and sometimes spectacular.

The hot air balloon contest is just that. Uniquely designed balloons are first filled with air from a fan, then a kerosene torch is inserted to light it. There are small teams handling each launch and one balloon is released at a time. I’m informed that the launcher used to get inside too, only jumping out at the last minute .. healthy and safety must now be a consideration!

As the balloon starts to lift, a construction of polystyrene gliders draped with explosives is attached … the balloon lifts and as it rises a small pyrotechnic display releases colour streams, glitter, confetti and the gliders. It’s beautiful and explosive. The gliders gracefully land at random, grabbed by small boys who burn their fingers if they grab the wrong part!

The judges crane their necks to watch, rapidly note taking and scoring each balloon for design and display … how they differentiate I can’t imagine. After taking a few shots I just watch the spectacle as balloons soar over the city…