We live in such an insular world that often, I don't think the issue of slavery grabs us. The global public has to be outraged by this issue in order for there to be significant change. At the moment, victims are silent - without a voice, without a face. Most pictures are taken in the shadows or the back of girl's heads. We never have to look these young women in the eyes and cope with our ambivelence. Though I completely agree with the logic of not exploiting victims, this only serves to further silence the voices of the survivors who want to be heard. I want to give these girls that want it - a voice that will be heard.
I have been working through this difficult dilemma for some time. I have had to confront this since 2004, during my first trip to Cambodia. From the moment I met a young lady at a government shelter and watched the horror on her face in having her picture taken, I have been aware of the sensitivities in media exposure and the need to protect girls from exploitation.
NOTE: Transitions Cambodia, Inc. works with girls that are of an age (15-18 years old) that can consent to photos and media exposure. TCI would not allow girls under the age of 15 to give consent.
On a more recent level, I have considered how to give exposure to this issue and to TCI. First, NBC Dateline wanted to shoot at the center. They were willing to do a story on Transitions Cambodia, Inc., but needed the ability to put the girls in the piece. Next, Tim Matsui (pictured above), a professional photographer wanted to take photographs of the girls. Tim has become a friend and someone that I will continue to work with. He came to Cambodia to learn and get some exposure to the entire issue of sex trafficking. When he first came, he had one sense of how images should be portrayed. Yet, after a short time of working with TCI, he has taken a much more cautious tact.
So, how do you begin to breach this issue? First, I needed to talk with the girls at the center. We discussed the Dateline piece first. In order for me to allow Dateline to shoot, I needed the informed consent of the girls and staff. Of the fourteen girls we had at the time, eleven of the fourteen decided that they would want to be in the Dateline segment, as long as, their names were not used and their details were not shared. This was not a problem. Though the special has not yet aired, the amount of exposure is fairly limited. This was the easier of the two situations.
Now, I needed to breach the issue of photos and other information. I fully believe in informed consent. At the same time, I also know that as a caretaker, I need to use my judgment as well. I sat down with our girls and discussed photographs and information. Out of the group - three girls opted to have their stories told and allow Tim to follow them through their particular journey. The first was a girl that was being reintegrated. The second was a young lady that was returning to Vietnam. The last, was a girl that has since become TCI's staff spokesperson - Srey Neth (see picture right). She is the only girl that opted to use her name, her story, and her journey to help other girls.
This has been a fairly emotional and difficult struggle to deal with. Tim can attest to the number of conversations I have had with him regarding this issue. Yet, my ultimate desire is to protect the girls and, at the same time, give them a voice. I believe we have achieved this. The first two girls used false names and the particular details of their stories are veiled. Srey Neth, on the other hand, wanted to make her entire story a part of her voice and let the world know what happened to her. She has become empowered through this experience.
Tim Matsui has taken the time to work with Neth, our staff, and me on her story and to follow her back to the area where she was trafficked and abused, to the pagoda where she found healing and insight, and to TCI where she has discovered her future. This will be expressed in photos, video, and multimedia on the TCI webisite, FEAR Project website, and venues where Srey Neth will be speaking in the future.
In the meantime, if you work in this industry, you will need to make these decision on your own. I would never compromise a court case or expose a girl who did not want to be photographed. I would encourage other organizations to heavily consider the 'no pictures' policy and find a balance of protection and allowing the world to see and hear those who have been horribly hurt.
Recently, I saw an article of an American woman who had been raped, but allowed the news to publish her photo - she felt that it allowed her the ability to heal and be heard. There was an empowerment in her being seen and given a voice. We in the anti-trafficking world need to weigh this issue, seeking the same balance, in order to bring this issue out of the shadows.