Last summer I had the opportunity to work with International Justice Mission in Cambodia. I have always admired their work and been a huge supporter of everything they do. Over the years, I have photographed just about every project you can imagine in the humanitarian sector, but I have never photographed sex trafficking stories of any kind. And to be honest...they scared me. I think it's easy for us to turn our eyes from the things we don't understand or don't know what to do with. I have so many friends involved in Anti-Trafficking efforts and I'm so thankful for their hard work. But I stayed clear from involving myself in these stories. I actually started reading Gary Haugen's (Founder of IJM) book, The Locust Effect, but I put it down. I couldn't finish it. Just the first chapter broke me to pieces.
When IJM asked me to work on this project in Cambodia and photograph the change that's happened over the past 10 years because of the collaboration between the government and various organizations, I knew I had to say yes.. I'm a person who is always searching for hope in a story. I do believe it's always there. The human spirit fights for it. This story was covered in hope. The hope and outcome of what CAN happen if people work together to fight injustices. I had the gift of meeting the most incredible men and women who risked their lives for the safety of thousands of children. It was an absolute honor. They truly are heroes and I hope you see that in these images. One of the photos that made me a little nervous was photographing Her Excellency, Secretary of State, Chou Bun Eng. The only photographs I had seen of her online were in her office. I really wanted to go for something different. Before the photoshoot, I pulled up examples on my computer of photographs I wanted to take of her in a field nearby. I was thrilled when she agreed. She brought an entourage of about 20 people as we photographed in the hot Cambodian sun. I'm so thankful for the hard work she's put into fighting for the protection of so many young children.
We listened to stories from morning to night everyday for a week. I heard things that I couldn't believe. When I was photographing General Pol Phie They, he pointed to a building and explained to me that his Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Police helped to rescue hundreds of women and children who were being sold for sex in it just 10 years ago. I learned that over 4,000 foreign men came monthly to that specific village for sex with children. There is a café underneath the building where men would sit and wait for pimps to offer them children for sale. There are no words for these types of things. I was so disgusted. But also oh so thankful for the raids that happened and rescued children. The justice system is now in place in Cambodia and prosecuting perpetrators. They can't get away with it any longer.
I poured everything I possibly could into capturing these images and stories. I knew the world needed to see this story. I trekked the long journey back home to Texas processing little bits and pieces of what I had heard and seen. A friend picked me up from the airport and brought me to my house. I was on my doorstep, reaching into my bag when I realized I had given my house keys to someone before I left and they went out of town. I was locked out of my house. Then it hit me. It felt like a waterfall. I fell to my knees and began to cry and cry and cry. My dear friend took me to her house and sat me on her couch and let me process for hours. I share this because I want all of you to know that it's okay to mourn the awful things that happen in this world. I mourn for those who do not deserve these awful things that are done to them. I mourn for those innocent children. I mourn for those who are afflicted by war. I am so angry at those who selfishly use and abuse others for their pleasure. There are sick sinful people in this world.
I questioned a lot after that trip.
"Where are you in all of this God?"
"Where were you when that child was taken?"
"Why did you not rescue them before this pain was caused to them?"
"Will you even protect me if I was attacked or taken?"
There is so much evil in this world and when that's all we see, it's hard to trust that God is our protector and a Good Father. But He is. His goodness and mercy are never ending. He is the ultimate rescuer and He does His good work in us and through us, His people. The thought came to my mind, what if Gary Haugen didn't act upon the vision that God gave him to start IJM? What if instead he decided to go into a different field of law? How many little ones and people in general would still be in slavery around the globe. How many other lawyers wouldn't be working at places like IJM right now to fight for Justice? I don't know Gary very well but I am a witness to seeing what his Yes to God and the Yes of so many other's can do.
We all have a part. I am still processing this trip. I am still questioning...but my questions are shifting.
"God, what do you want me to do here on this earth to show people your Goodness?"
"God, what can I do to fight against slavery and injustice?"
I hope you take time and enjoy reading through these stories below and hearing about the transformation that has take place over the past 10 years in Cambodia.
If you feel compelled to do something right now, you can become a freedom partner with IJM.