Tag Archives: www.cosasia.org

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, 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!

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 …

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…




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 …