Tag Archives: tribes

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 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.


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 …