In “By the River”, photographer Ian Flanders documents the conditions suffered by a group of enslaved Vietnamese sex workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They had been lured to the city with promises of a café job but found themselves trapped by purported debt bondage to their traffickers. After helping the trafficked women build a bridge to freedom, however, he was struck by the realisation that the ability to weigh and choose among options is a privilege in itself.
Right Now: It all started during your first trip to Cambodia, when you encountered a woman at the riverbank with eyes of haunting despair. At this point, had you foreseen yourself taking on an activist’s role for this cause?
Ian Flanders: No, not at all. All I knew was that I wanted to pursue a project in Phnom Penh exploring the desperation I sensed within the city and in that young woman. It was my introduction to the dog-eat-dog world of Phnom Penh.
It was not until I witnessed a series of moments with the enslaved women that it got to a point when things went far beyond just a photography project.
One such moment was seeing the amount of self harm marks on a young woman’s wrist. I pointed to them, to which she replied, “Phnom Penh, no good”.
After receiving no responses from relevant NGOs, you returned to the brothels on self-funded trips over three years. How did you build a relationship with these individuals whose trust had been repeatedly betrayed?
Without a doubt this was my greatest challenge, let alone finding, then being allowed into a brothel that was housing enslaved prostitutes in the first place (that was a very uncomfortable ride in itself). Yet the approach to gain trust was simple – treat them with compassion and respect.
I can honestly say it took two years for me to gain their trust. They were very scared of being beaten or worse due to allowing me to photograph them within the shacks.
I remember clearly the second time I returned to Phnom Penh. Pham was reluctant to let me back into the brothel – and when I say brothel, I mean a dire, sombre, inconspicuous shack. She stood at the entrance staring at me, not saying a word, whereas in the past she never hesitated to lead me inside. Sure enough, when she allowed me in, the first thing she asked me was, “Why you here?” She was very surprised and apprehensive to see that I had returned to help her.
Also, the first time I visited Anh, she broke down, cried and curled herself into the foetal position pleading for me to perform what every other man does. I couldn’t believe how scared she was due to me not wanting to have sex with her. If I were to submit to her wishes, which in her world was easier to deal with, I would have broken any hope of her believing I was different from any other man she had to deal with.
Eventually, your efforts led to the women’s freedom and arrest of the traffickers. Yet when offered free housing, education, healthcare and jobs, the women rejected the changes, choosing their chains and addictions because they did not comprehend their rights and feared the unknown.
Could you elaborate on your realisation that “opportunity is not enough”?
After helping one of the young women return to Vietnam, it wasn’t too long before she came back to the brothel, this time with her nine-year-old daughter. When I saw this, I informed the NGO and passed on their offer of rehabilitation for both her and her daughter – she chose to remain with her daughter in the brothel.
It is difficult for me to fully understand or grasp that reality. Equality and autonomy must be understood, not just in theory but also as practical outcomes. Opportunity is not enough for someone who has long been in chains.
In addition to reflecting upon the complexities of human trafficking, what are effective ways for us to begin engaging with such issues?
A waterfall begins from only one drop of water. I feel that it comes down to the individual to want to engage, to broaden their horizon.
As individuals and communities, we’re absorbed by our immediate surroundings – what happens over there can stay over there, so to speak. What’s more engaging to most people: one’s smartphone or “another” poverty-driven story in Southeast Asia?
As a direct answer, I would ask the viewer to answer a question I asked the women in the shacks: what is your idea of happiness? Then, compare it to Anh’s answer: “I don’t need anything at all in terms of happiness, what I only need is some day I could live with my mother and my child. That’s enough happiness for me. ”