Thursday, January 19, 2017

Photo Story: Tak Brothel Worker 1999, Cambodia

I was recently contacted by a writer from the States who was moved by a picture I did back in 1999. The photo is of a young Vietnamese brothel worker named Tak who worked in the notorious K11 area near Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  The writer who reminded me of this old photograph is cultural anthropologist (not actually sure what that is), he wrote a book on tattooing, and the history of tattoos in Asia, their culture significance etc. Will try and get his book as I find that subject fascinating.

After receiving his emails a flush of old memories came flashing back. I had not thought of Tak for a long time. I thought I would write a little about her now on the blog. Not sure if I have written about her before, maybe so. Here is that story:

I had heard about the K11 area online and from sex pats in Cambodia and Thailand. I was frightened to go there but decided it was worth a look. My hope was to make pictures there, that is my hope and motivation with most everything. I got a local motorcycle guy to drive me to K11 from Phnom Penh. It was a fairly long and eventful bike ride of around 30 minutes. We traveled through rural Cambodia, and it was exciting for me. We passed all kinds of farms, people on local transport, trucks, animals etc. Fascinating shit all round, everywhere. Eventually we came to a slightly more rural area and we stopped near a group of buildings and a big sign on the main road He dropped me there and I walked in by myself.

K11 was a series of concrete building like you see everywhere in Asia with these large steel doors that could be closed down and locked over the various store entrances. In most places the products being sold might be vegetables, furniture or clothing but here in K11 it was flesh. The place was a market that sold women to local Cambodian men and some visiting sex pats-tourists from round the world. Along with the brothel areas there was regular businesses and homes intermingled. It was a strange strange depressing scene, never been to any place like it in my life before (later I photographed a similar location in 2003, in Poi Pet Cambodia).

I was very uncomfortable and hid my camera from view so as not to attract unwanted attention from the local toughs or to scare people in general (they do not like folks they think are journalists). I walked about a bit, unsure what to do or where to go.  Was sort of just wandering about aimlessly and uncomfortable when a young woman came up and took my hand. I was in the middle of the street, not really near any of the brothels when it happened so she surprised me. That young Vietnamese woman was Tak. Why did she take my hand? Was she going to drag me into a building? (that happens outside the gogo bars in Bangkok Thailand).

She took my hand and led me away from the brothels and to an isolated place, around the corner and down the road. That location was bustling with older men, talking loudly and carrying things in cages. I looked closer and saw they were transporting roosters. Tak then led me further and we came to an enclosed barn like building and inside was a ring where rooster fights (GAI CHON in Thai) and gambling took place. It was interesting to be there and my nerves settled somewhat. We were too early and the fights were not starting yet so after a half an hour we went back to her brothel (this time without the hand holding). I sat and we talked there and I bought a $5 USD coke from the mama-son who did not seem to mind that I was staying out front instead of taking Tak out back for sex. I took out my notebook and started to learn a few words of Vietnamese from here, would write it down as we went. I also learned a few words of Khmer (the Cambodian language). After a while I asked Tak if I could take her photo. She took me took me to the back area of the brothel reclined on a bed and I took a photograph, the photograph that the writer commented on in the resent emails. Here it is:

Tak Vietnamese Brothel Sex Worker K11, Cambodia 1999
Not much more to the end of this story. I went back to K11 a second time, met Tak again and sat with her and a friend of hers. I remember they sat together waiting for customers. They also had a wild bird that they let out of a nearby cage and they would play with it as it jumped about, feeding it little crackers. I learned the word for "Bird" that day but have forgotten it now.

I never went back to K11 after that second visit, only ended up taking the 2 or 3 pictures of Tak. I was basically too frightened to go anywhere else. That time with Tak thou was the inspiration for me returning to that world and making the 2003 brothel images. Because of the memories of Tak I felt compelled to go back and tell more of those stories. That lead to pictures like the one below of Fok another Vietnamese sex worker (probably sold into that life). Tan also worked worked in a Cambodian brothel, this time in Poi Pet.

Fok Vietnamese Brothel Sex Worker Poi Pet, Cambodia 2003
I always think back to those women, some were closer to girls then women. What happened to them? Did they die of AIDS? Were they beaten or murdered? Or are they happily living in Vietnam somewhere with families of their own. I so hope for the latter scenario. So hope they were able to eventually live happy lives.

Should I go back into that world and try to do the "Lost Innocence?" photo or documentary film. I don't know, it is so difficult. Still the faces I met their, the lives I shared for a brief time, call out to me from the past. I can see their eyes in my minds memory, hear the young women's voices. Their stories need to be told, their lives CANNOT be forgotten. I am not sure what to do. I probably have to go back at some point, have to try yet again. It seems to me that sometime no one cares, that the photos have no impact. Every now and again I will get an email (like this last week) that reminds me that people do care, that the photos I made of those lives are important and can have a positive effect towards meaningful discussion and change. I hope this blog post furthers that discussion and continues to help raise awareness about the lives of these poor young women. Here is a link that explains my on and off "Lost Innocence project":

Note*  I should mention that at that time the police who controlled the K11 area were bought off. They were bribed and even thou they would make occasional raids it was more for show than substance. The police would often visit the brothel for free as customers and then take a big money bribe after that. The brothel owner would pay the bribes or be shut down. If anyone was arrested it was usually the sex workers who did not have the proper paper work to be in Cambodia. They would be arrested, fined and shipped out as illegals. This information is based on what I learned  through speaking to local people including victims like Tak, exploiters like the mama papa-sans, sex pats and through online stories, newspaper reports etc.

It is sometimes such a terrible world, how can people do these things?

Update* Maybe I need to dig out these old negs and try to get them exhibited again. Maybe I should make up a folio of that work (was asked in the resent emails if I had one), and try to sell them to collections/collectors. I could then donate the money earned to aid organizations that help the brothel workers. Maybe I could use the money to help fund a major project. Then donate the money made from that project (picture folios or a doc film) to aid organizations. Too many things to think about, too many thoughts fill my mind now, need to distract myself before my head explodes. Will get back in the darkroom tonight, will do some printing for the dad show in August. That should help focus me again, clear my mind. I can think of my father again.

Update** My new writer friend from the states is going to send me a FREE copy of his book, great guy. It is nice to meet folks like this online. So often you meet only the angry types in the comment sections of YouTube and elsewhere. It is a great change of pace to meet a friendly, generous human being.