Four years ago, when Mickey Choothesa visited the tropical Cambodian port-town of Sihanoukville, he wasn’t searching for a paradise of white-sand beaches. Nor was the professional photographer looking for images amidst the wealth of exotic flora and fauna. Part photographer, part social activist, Choothesa was on a mission to document the children victimized by the business of human trafficking – a pandemic black market for flesh trading that, in the region of South East Asia, continues to lure disadvantaged youth from many of the rural communities. It was in Sihanoukville that Choothesa came to meet Sangnuan — a petite, talkative and self-aware 12-year-old girl whose parent’s had recently sold her into the servitude of another Cambodian family for the price of $75. Two years later, when Sangnuan reached the minimum age requirement for a travel ID, she was sold once again – this time across the border to a buyer in neighboring Thailand.
Not atypical for a rural child en route to the urban underworld of prostitution, Sangnuan’s story parallels thousands of other children in Cambodia and neighboring countries who, as a result of either kidnapping or a number of social and financial pressures, have succumbed to the black market of child prostitution.
Choothesa recently made his way back to the coastal port-town and found a slightly older Sangnuan reunited with her parents in Sihanoukville. Now 16 years old, Sangnuan had returned from working in Thailand to nurse her 10-month-old child.
"She is temporarily residing with her family in Cambodia and plans to return to her job in Thailand as soon as possible," wrote Choothesa via e-mail while traveling in Australia. "There are many girls like Sangnuan; children who are lured by the promise of a better life and encouraged by their families to support the family income. These girls have ‘chosen’ to work in the sex trade, however at the ages of 12 and 14, the term ‘choice’ holds little value."
FOR A PROBLEM that’s often misconstrued as being specific to certain regions of the world, James Keim, the president of the Southeast Asia Children’s Project and co-author of "The Violence of Men," believes that the work of photographers like Choothesa is a powerful tool that provokes people to take notice, and perhaps action – a kind of connection to reality often lost in the raw data of statistics. Utilizing the power of imagery, Keim teamed up with a number of photographers and colleagues whom he had become acquainted with while training social workers in South East Asia, including Choothesa, Neal Newfield and Susan Newfield. Culling their images from first-hand interactions with victimized children over the years, the end result is a captivating look at the faces behind the stories and statistics of child sex-workers living in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Aptly titled "Humans for Sale," the traveling exhibit offers an intimate look at the children, both male and female, who have been forced into a life of prostitution. Originating at the Green Rice Gallery in San Jose, Calif., the exhibit makes its first stop at Gallerie Brigitte in Reston, which will house the show throughout the month of March.
"This is such a hard concept to grasp – words alone just don’t have the impact to grasp how bad it is – sometimes I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it," said Keim. "When you connect with the photographs it’s suddenly not an ‘us, them’ problem, it’s a
Brigitte Le, owner of Gallerie Brigitte in Reston, is anticipating the show, adding that the exhibit is very topical for her gallery, which deals predominately in Vietnamese art. The gallery will also donate 15 percent of all sales throughout the month of March to The Southeast Asia Children’s Project, the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office in Taiwan and the Catalyst Foundation – all non-profit organizations devoted to combating human trafficking. With an opening reception set for March 3, of which a number of the photographers including Keim and Neal Newfield plan to attend, Le hopes the show provokes action from her patrons.
"I think to bring something like this to Reston – people will be shocked," she said. "It’s really caused a lot of interesting conversation and discussion. When I heard people talk about it, I felt sad for [the children], but when you put an image in front of you it’s so moving and more powerful."
NEAL NEWFIELD, a professor at West Virginia University traveled with his wife Susan Newfield to South East Asia last year with Keim, getting a first-hand look at the depth of human trafficking. Helping train social workers in rehabilitation methods of victimized children, Newfield also had the opportunity to meet the children and take their photographs. The photographs, he pointed out, were not of locked brothels – which hold prostitutes against their will.
"To go to a locked brothel and try to take photographs – you take you’re life in your hands," he said. "The best case scenario would be to get beat-up, but most likely you’d end up in a ditch somewhere."
For the most part, Newfield said that most of the children he met "were very sweet kids," but that there was almost a clandestine element to the way some of the prostitution businesses were structured.
"A lot of times with sex-work, it isn’t really obvious it’s going on," he said. "Not every woman is working out of a brothel. Sometimes they will have an uncle that will give them a few-hundred dollars a month. To put that into perspective, the average annual income in Cambodia is $50."
But although Newfield’s work in South East Asia exposed him to an extreme of human trafficking not prevalent in the U.S., he realizes a globalizing climate makes us more connected than it often seems.
"While this exhibit focuses on South East Asia, it’s becoming a growing international problem," he said. "As countries we need to think – as the world gets smaller – about our behavior and how it impacts others. I hope people take action out of this exhibit – whether they write a check or get involved."