Last night I photographed an awareness event put on by Transitions Global, regarding their work here in Portland to help girls trapped in sex slavery and prostitution. We were privileged to have Weinland playing music for the event. Beautiful music; check it out on their MySpace page. They’re likened to Neil Young (in a good way), and I hear a little of Iron and Wine in there as well. Good stuff.
With the record levels of snow we’ve been getting around here lately, I’ve been wanting to get out and photograph in it. I was blessed to have a young lady I’ve photographed with in the past volunteer to work with me again this past weekend. So we went to the highest point in Portland–Council Crest–where it was still 32 degrees and very covered in snow. Meredith was a real trooper, wearing a party dress in this kind of weather for quite a while. And it paid off. We photographed some great, quirky images for her fashion photography portfolio, and were treated to a beautiful sunset at the very end.
When I was in high school, my English teacher, Mr. Demkowicz, had us write Cosmic Papers a couple times a year. A Cosmic Paper was something of a personal review of one’s life, a way of taking stock of what we’d learned so far in his class, how we might have grown and changed, and how it related to everything and anything. Thus the “Cosmic” portion of the title.
For a number of years after high school, I would sit down at the end of the year and write my own cosmic paper. It was a good, reflective discipline.
I don’t intend to write a complete Cosmic Paper here, but I have been thinking about the year past, and want to take a few minutes to reflect on it.
Ten years ago, it was hard to imagine a year like 2008.
In 1998, I was still struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and was living in subsidized housing. But things were looking up; I’d just traveled to Taiwan to photograph a wedding, was looking into finishing a BFA in Art, was best friends with a wonderful girl, and was planning our wedding.
Fast forward 10 years:
I’m now preparing for my 10 year wedding anniversary, which is hard to believe. Shannon and I are better friends than ever, and we’ve racked up some precious memories in a short stint of time.
In the past year, I’ve photographed in 10 countries outside of the USA. (Mexico, England, France, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Spain, Morocco, Cambodia, and Thailand.) That’s an incredible dream come true. I’ve photographed for magazines and stock, weddings and models, street shooting, documentaries, and portraits. I’ve met many wonderful people and been able to tell some interesting and meaningful stories. I wrote my first travel magazine article on Bicycling in Budapest. I’ve been vomited on in airplanes, hiked the Yorkshire Dales, explored the Bories of southern France, worked with women struggling with eating disorders and the aftershocks of sex slavery, and come to enjoy chocolate.
Back at home in the past year, I’ve photographed some beautiful weddings and portraits, created some new websites, moved on from a leadership position at church, sent my wife to nursing school, and submitted my Skeleton in the Closet series to book publishers. It’s been a year of ups and downs in both photography and real estate investing, but overall a year of rest, growth, and discovery.
That’s a long ways from subsidized housing and CFS.
I say none of this to gloat. I’m sure plenty of people are jealous of what I’ve been able to do this past year, just as I remain jealous of what others are able to do that I’m not. So counting one’s blessings, and expressing gratitude, are good practices. I have a lot to be grateful for, and I am blessed. (Although it’s also true that I had a lot to be grateful for and was just as blessed 10 years ago.) God is good.
I’ve been struggling to know what to post about my actual work in Cambodia and Thailand, related to human trafficking and child sex slavery. I’ve talked about it only briefly in previous posts, regarding red light districts and some of the outreaches for whom I was creating imagery.
In preparing for this trip, I spent a lot of time talking with Seth Johnson (of For Their Rescue), James Pond (of Transitions Global), and Brenda Dolan (also of FTR). I also did other research, reading, and viewing of other documentaries on the subject, including Tim Matsui’s photographic work there. It became difficult to think of the issue–and of portraying it–without seeing everything in dark and depressing hues. The atrocities humans commit against other humans is mind-boggling and gut-wrenching. And the statistics are overwhelming: 27 million people are currently enslaved around the world. Human trafficking is the third most profitable crime in the world, right after dealing in drugs and weapons; billions of dollars a year are made in the trade of human lives.
Yet I’ve been frequently reminded of a quote from, of all people, Josef Stalin, in which he said, “One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.” And it’s true: any number more than one is an abstract statistic to us. To say that six million Jews died in the Holocaust is a number we grimace at; but to watch the life of Wladek and his family in The Pianist makes us weep and have nightmares. We empathize, and think to ourselves, “That could have been me, or my family. What would I have done?”
This has been my approach to the brief documentary I’ve been working on during this trip. Among other things, I have endeavored to tell the story of one girl, Liya. Her story is both common in its elements, and uniquely hers in its particulars. She grew up in a slum, was tricked and sold into a brothel at 16, was forced to service men who paid for her every day and night, was beaten and drugged and abandoned and abused. One day the police raided the brothel, and she was pulled from its grip, abused by the police, put in the system, and eventually placed at Transitions. A year later, I met her.
To hear her tell her story is painful. Yet even as we interviewed her and recorded her story, in the background we could clearly hear the other 14 girls and staff giggling and playing and reciting their ABCs. It was a beautiful meld of the past and present.
As I spent a couple weeks with the girls and staff at the house, it became difficult to view these 14-19 year olds as victims or prey or prostitutes, and not just average teenagers who like to listen to music, make braided bracelets, and dream about their futures. In fact, the only visible reminder of their past in the house are the scars on their faces and arms, and the drawings in the Counseling Room depicting beatings by pimps and being chained to their brothels.
As I hung out in their schoolroom listening to their English practice, and in the yoga studio watching them learn medical basics and yoga instruction, I found myself thinking a lot more about their futures than their pasts. While they certainly carry around the scars of their past, at least they have counseling to help begin the healing process, and education and support to help them move forward. I begin to see why so many agencies make photographers sign forms promising not to portray their kids as victims. They aren’t victims, they’re people.
Last weekend, Liya moved from the Transitions house into an apartment with one of the other ‘graduates’ of the house. She has a job, she’s still going to school, and some day she wants to be able to afford to have her family move in with her. She’s not defined by her horrendous past, nor is her story really all that unique in her world.
The last afternoon I spent with her, Liya told me this: “Before I came here, I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t control my emotions. Sometimes I get really angry and I want to let it out. But now I can control my feelings, and I know who I am. It’s all because of my ‘Mom’ Jaya [the director at TLC].” Jaya had just told me the same thing: when Liya first arrived, she was mean to everyone. As the year went on, she became more mature and calm. Now she’s a real sweetheart.
We’ve created a powerful documentary, telling her story, which Transitions shares in their presentations on human trafficking. For me, it feels like a way of fighting back against the darkness by letting her voice speak into it. It’s a way of humanizing an otherwise impersonal ‘issue.’ It’s a way of drawing out from the mass of statistics a single tragedy, and finding that it doesn’t end with tragedy, but with hope.
I’ll post an amalgam of images from Bangkok here, with accompanying notes. Much of these were shot while walking the streets with Iven and Kashmira. I was grateful (and a bit in awe) that they spoke Thai; and frequently, the locals were also surprised to hear their native tongue on the lips of a couple of white folks. We stopped and chatted with people frequently, including this beautiful grandmother above.
Tuk-tuks are a way of life in SE Asia. These little motorized carts (in Phnom Penh, they are like a burro and cart, except that the burro is an overworked motorcycle) take you wherever you need to go, for relatively cheap. The drivers are quite industrious, to the point that you literally cannot walk more than about 10 yards, or appear out of any doorway, without at least one guy saying, “Tuk-tuk, sir?”
One of my assignments while in SE Asia was to photograph images that in some way show Buddhism in the modern, urban context. One of the most visible and prevalent forms of this was the amulets and good luck charms found everywhere, especially in taxi cabs.
Not only was I blessed with the purchase of a new Canon 5D MkII just before leaving for this trip, but the good folks at LensBaby also sent something with me. They graciously offered to lend me their new Composer lens, which is their best invention yet. I shot some stills with it (such as this one, above, at a park in Bangkok), but was most excited to use it for some of my video work.
This gardener cares for the landscaping along one stretch of a canal in Bangkok. Iven had me photograph some of the signs that he put up, that clearly indicated where the tuk-tuk drivers who stop by should and should not pee. He was tired of them killing all his potted plants.
One of the hilights of Bangkok life are the street vendors, which are everywhere. You can buy everything from fresh-cooked meat on a stick (deliciously marinated), to coconut ice cream, to fried bugs. The papaya we were purchasing from the vendor above cost 10 baht, which is about 27 cents.
My last night in BKK consisted of walking the streets late at night with Iven and Kashmira. We stopped by this street vendor, whom they know, and chatted for a few moments. She didn’t like the pictures I took of her (she was 50, and didn’t like how old she looked), so I took one last shot of myself with her. Notice the artificial flower behind my ear, which was her gift to me.
I’m not usually an animal photographer kind of guy. I like animals, but am allergic. I had some hamsters as a kid, and wanted a dog, but couldn’t have one. And stray animals or pets usually don’t pique my interest when out photographing. But in Bangkok they did. I’m not sure why. But at the end of the day of shooting, I had a ton of animal photos. Especially dogs. You find them everywhere, usually lying asleep on the pavement. Funny looking dogs. And the really funny part: their owners would clothe them in a shirt to keep them warm during the chilly eighty degree days of winter. Oh, to be a dog.
But it wasn’t just dogs that caught my attention. Cats too. And chickens. Or, rather, fighting cocks. I came upon a sidewalk laden with wicker cages, full of fighting cocks, and their owners, such as the prize gamecock above.
It’s challenging to travel and work, and post to a blog at the same time. It’s challenging enough to find time to edit.
I’ve been in Bangkok for 4 days. Never have I seen a city quite like this. Over 12 million people, in a sprawling metropolis right out of Bladerunner. I’ve walked through hovels and massive malls, taken tuk-tuks and SkyRail, eaten from street vendors (now that I know what they’re selling) and Starbucks (a Tazo from Portland), walked in the golden smog-filtered sunlight and the neon-lit night, among Christians in skirts and prostitutes in bikinis.
Every night I’ve been out shooting for various assignments, all related to the sex trade in some way.
I’ve been staying with my dear friends Iven and Kashmira. I photographed their wedding several years ago in Seattle, and they must have 50 photographs on their walls from their wedding. (Plus a constantly revolving slideshow on their laptop. ) Considering their triangular apartment in Bangkok is about 150 square feet, that’s one photo for every 3 square feet of apartment. Surely that’s the highest ratio of photo-to-square-feet of any customer I’ve ever had. I should give them an award of some sort; maybe some new pictures.
And that’s just what I’m going to do. I’ve been photographing some things for them, and for others, in support of their work. These people–both foreigners and Thais–are working to offer people in the sex industry some hope of a way out. They build relationships, slowly, and look for opportunities to help. It’s both intimidating and amazing to walk the streets with these people, and watch them approach these men and women with smiles and conversation. And cookies. The other night I was out with about 50 people, singing Christmas carols and offering home-made cookies to men working in the bars and clubs. Their response was frequently moving. We were greeted with smiles (and a few tears), and several men told us they’d never had anything like this happen to them.
Another evening we were out photographing images for a woman who runs a home for females wanting a way out of the sex industry. Oftentimes, she explained, these girls are fourth or fifth generation prostitutes, and don’t know anything else. Often they are forced into the work by cultural expectations (as I mentioned in a previous post, they are obligated to help support their family, or to pay for their brothers to go to school). So this woman goes into bars regularly, gets to know the girls, and offers them a way out. They help them go to school, get vocational training, etc.
As I’ve worked and met people the last couple of weeks, I’ve frequently wished someone would go and make a book, telling the stories of these men and women on the streets (similar to what I’ve done with Skeleton in the Closet, telling the stories of people struggling with eating disorders). On the street they are numbers, toys. With a story, they are real people, to be respected and cherished.
That’s a brief overview of my work here. I head back to Phnom Penh later today for another day and a half, and then home. I wish I could pack some sunshine with me when I return home to snow and ice.All photographs and content is Copyright Fritz Liedtke. Please do not copy or re-use them. To do so is a violation of federal copyright law, and will be prosecuted.
Seth and I were talking over dinner about how we could tell people about what we’ve been doing, and at the same time give them entirely the wrong impression. And yet these stories are worth telling, because they are integral parts of this trip.
Last night we stood on a street corner talking with a drug dealer. Our tuk-tuk driver was late (or we were early), and this guy in a baby-blue jacket with white furry trim starts asking us if we want any marijuana, or coke. “Coca-Cola, maybe,” I said, smirking. He laughed. Seth and I started talking with him about his work: how many customers a night (6-8), who buys (mostly Westerners), how long he’s there (all night long–thus the coat; sleeps during the day); what and how he sells. Eventually we wandered off to find our driver.
Two nights before, Athena (of Transitions Global) took us on a tour of the trade. We went for drinks at a girlie bar, where mostly western men go for drinks and to hang out with girls, and potentially to take them back to their hotel. It was a relatively sleezy joint, with girls who, as Athena pointed out, were frequently the leftover or washed-up brothel workers. With the big western men, the little Asian women reminded me of rootbeer popsicles for some reason.
We then proceeded across the street to another bar, where we noticed a sign on the guards’ desk that read, “Please leave all guns with guards.” Inside there were probably 40 girls packed in the bar, talking with customers. We took a seat at a booth, and immediately there were 4 girls lined up at our booth, welcoming us and asking about our drinks order. We ordered dinner, and since the girls were there, I started talking with one girl who spoke good English. We talked about her life, about why she worked there, about her family and their poverty. She was an intelligent, sweet girl, who had worked for an NGO working with orphans as a volunteer, and then learned accounting there as well. But the pay was not good, and culturally she was obligated to help provide for her family. So she started working as a waitress at these bars, where she earns $40/month, and makes up the rest with the men who take her home. In doing so, she’s enabling her brother to go to college. Doesn’t seem like a fair trade to me.
Toward the end of the tour, we drove through the Gray Buildings (also dubbed ‘Anarchy‘ by the locals), the infamous brothel slum. A number of the girls living at the shelter we’ve been working with grew up there. Driving by after dark, you see lines of girls sitting and standing, and groups of thugs (’gangsters’ is how our local friends describe them) sitting nearby. As we rolled slowly along, a young man hopped up from the ground, ran across the street, and called out to Seth, “You want lady tonight, sir?”
“No lady tonight, thanks,” Seth replied.
I’ve been waiting to tell someone that all week.
So, conversations with pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers have constituted a fair amount of our experience here. We’ve both also struck up friendships with a number of the tuk-tuk drivers on our street, and have enjoyed talking with them about their lives and families and dreams. And we have had the privilege of working with the staff and girls at the transitional home, who also have amazing stories, including how they lived through the nightmare of the Khmer Ruge. (One of the women told us the story of how she talked a soldier out of killing her. The number of stories she can tell of facing death and escaping are amazing.)
Finally, I must mention how in awe we are of the women we’ve met who are pouring their lives into their work here. They’ve started and run amazing programs to help women and girls wanting to get out of (or who have been rescued from) sex slavery. We’ve met with Helen of Chab Dai, Ruth of Daughters of Cambodia, Kristen of World Hope, all Christians who pour all their energies into this work, but also have a vision for (and are succeeding at) working themselves out of jobs. Their vision is to train local people to do what they are doing, to run shelters, start sustainable small businesses, to train counselors and advocates, to work with government on legislative issues, etc etc. Their hard work and sweet spirits are truly humbling to behold.
My posts so far have been mostly non-work related. But we have been working. Some of what we are doing involves confidentiality, so the images I can post are limited.
I’ve spent the last few days with a transitional home for girls who have been rescued from child sex slavery. They range in age from 14-19. Three of them have volunteered to tell their stories, and let me film them.
Their stories are heartbreakingly typical: tricked or sold into a brothel, forced to ‘service’ clients all hours of the day and night, regularly beaten or threatened at gunpoint. Friends who tried to run were killed.
Thankfully these girls have been rescued by police or other NGO raids, and have been placed in homes such as this one. Here they find counseling, encouragement, food, shelter, schooling, love, a future. It’s a beautiful contrast to be interviewing a girl in one room, listening to the horror of her young life, while in the background the other girls are laughing and playing and studying. There is hope.
Last night we were given a tour of some of the red light districts here in Phnom Penh: girlie bars (a sleezy one and an upscale one, across the street from each other), slums, brothels. The pathetic thing: these places are filled with foreign white males. It’s said that if these men didn’t come and pay for prostitution, that much of the trade would dry up. It makes me want to walk around taking their photos and posting them on the internet, but there are signs saying ‘no photos’ just for this reason. And there are a lot of guns.
Seth and I did some other sightseeing, taking in Cambodian culture as we prepare for the rest of our work. We spent some time at Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple and park in Phnom Penh. As we were about to turn and leave, I saw, 50 yards down the hill, a monkey scamper across the grass and through the trees. We headed straight for it.
Lo and behold, there were probably 25 monkeys playing around there. A woman was walking about tossing them mangoes and bananas. And they were tame-ish. I inched my way toward them, photographing from as close as 2 feet, until one of the males bared his teeth at me. That was a hilight.
Seth decided we needed to see The Killing Fields, and Tuol Sleng Prison. He was right: if we’re going to know Cambodia, you can’t skip the atrocity. The nation’s psyche has been formed by 30 years of it. It plays right into some of the causes of child sex slavery and human trafficking.
We spent a couple hours at Tuol Sleng, a former school compound, where the Khmer Ruge imprisoned, tortured, and murdered approximately 12,500 people in 4 years. Only a handful ever made it out alive. Most people were bludgeoned to death with shovels and other implements, usually by captors who were 10-15 years old. Men, women, children, young and old, were brought here, photographed, their history recorded, then tortured and murdered. It staggers the mind. It becomes hard to breathe.
The rooms full of photographs ask so many questions of the viewer: why these people? Why these mothers with their babies? These children? (These were my contemporaries, my age in the mid-to-late 1970s.) Why were the captors so vigilant to photograph each one of them? Their Nazi-like records seem such a waste: why document what you intend to eradicate? Their methods of chained imprisonment, torture, and physical murder make the European concentration camps and gas chambers look humane.
Perhaps the most vivid, moving rooms are the first we visited. They are small classrooms, some with green chalkboards still on the walls. In the center of the room is a single metal bed. A chain or shackle. A shovel. And a photograph on the wall of what the Vietnamese emancipators found: 14 bodies, one on each bed, recently tortured to death, blackened and bloated. The rooms are silent, yet they speak.
Monday, Dec 1, 2008
So this is how it begins: A week before we’re to leave, the Bangkok airport is overrun by protestors, shutting it down. Still locked down the day before we leave, our flight is cancelled. I search and search for alternate flights, and, miraculously find one: a flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the same price as our previous itinerary, for the exact same dates. All other date combinations are $600-2000 more. I book it 15 hours before we leave. A week of uncertainty about our itinerary finds closure. I finish packing.
Tuesday, Dec 2, 2008
Well, here we are, high above the Pacific, 6 hours into an 11 hour flight from SFO to Seoul.
In spite of only 3 and a half hours of sleep last night, and in spite of Tylenol PM and melatonin, I’ve not slept much. The screaming baby hasn’t helped. To my right, a Chinese-American man sleeps in front of a Meryl Streep musical. To my left, Seth sleeps off and on. He’s only arisen from his seat once in the last 6 hours. He also hasn’t thrown up in about 12 hours, so we’re making progress.
I woke up at 3 am this morning, unable to sleep. About 4:00 the phone rang, but when Shannon answered, no one was there. I was still awake at 5 when the phone rang again. Marlo was on the phone, telling us Seth had spent the night in the bathtub, with vomiting and diarrhea. He wanted to see if I could reschedule the trip a few days out. I said I’d try, and called the insurance I’d booked with our flight, but they said they’d pretty much only refund our flight costs, not pay for a reschedule.
I looked at Shannon, sitting on the floor in my office, and said: I don’t know what to do. Except call Marlo back.
When she got on the phone, she told me Seth was in the shower, and they were going to head to the airport. If he didn’t pass out on the way to the airport, he was going. That was good enough for me. I laid down for another 20 minutes, then we prepared and left.
Seth was moving slow, but moving, when he arrived at PDX. I got us all checked in, and we boarded the plane. As we sat there, waiting for the plane to load, he got quieter and quieter, picking up a paper barf bag and eyeing it. A few minutes later, as we backed out of the terminal, he slumped over, dropped the barf bag in his lap, and started to retch.
“Seth, pick up the bag!” I said, pounding his arm. No response. “Seth, use the bag!” Still no response, just two full-on retches, spraying vomit all over himself, the seat back in front of him, and the paper bag sitting idly in his lap.
“Seth, what are you doing? Use the bag.” I hit the call button for a flight attendant. Slowly Seth lifted his head, barely responding. An attendant came over with paper towels and a large plastic bag. Seth whispered that he had a change of clothes in his bag. And that he’d be fine. But for the rest of the flight, he sat there, nearly comatose, propping the plastic bag open in his lap. At one point he turned to me and said, “If I black out again, wake me up.” “I’m not sure I can,” I responded. “You didn’t respond last time.“ I sat there, watching and praying, satisfied that as long as I could see the rise and fall of his breathing in the white plastic bag on his lap, he was still with me.
It’s been an eventful 36 hours. The monotony of long distance flight is almost a welcome relief. I can’t believe we’re actually here on the plane on our way.
Thursday, Dec 4
We made it. 30-some hours of travel, a drugged night’s sleep in our hotel room, and here we are.
Jaya, the director of Transitions Cambodia (the safe house/transitional home for girls rescued from sex slavery) surprised us by meeting us at the airport last night. We were just about to catch a cab to our hotel, when she walked up and began to ask us if we knew Fritz and Seth. I recognized her immediately from Transitions’ video (online on their website), and we were all very excited to meet each other. She introduced us to Meing, one of the house moms, as well. She told us her story as we drove by cab to our hotel.
Today we’ve rested and eaten well, figured out where to store/hide/lock gear, and hydrated ourselves. Then we started walking, exploring the city, learning how to dodge cars, cabs, motos, and tuk-tuks as pedestrians: look both ways, walk at a consistent pace, don’t get killed.
I start photographing right away.