Bassac River to Woman’s Island
Phnom Penh is the junction of the Mekong and the Bassac Rivers. On a shooting trip over to Woman’s Island in the Bassac, we met several fishing vessels plying the waters. This young fellow on the bow was working hard to help his father to feed the family. To Woman’s Island was where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge sent women and children to be slaughtered, that those in the city mainland could not heard their cries of agony.
The Alleyway Family
With camera and Steve, my sound tech, I found the real reason we had come to Cambodia. It was here in the Ta Khmau district that we met families trying to survive the cruelty of poverty and hunger. Children are a great asset, as they can be traded for food. A small bag of rice can buy a little girl of only 5-6 years of age. The rice can feed the family for a few days, but the child is thrown into a cage, drugged and forced into sex trafficking in the sex tourist industry for a lifetime.
Toul Sleng Prison and The Killing Fields
One-fifth of the Cambodian population was exterminated during the ‘70s by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It was in Phnom Penh’s Toul Sleng Prison, a converted school building, that the torturing of thousands of individuals took place and in the Killing Fields, south in the countryside, where they were shot and buried in mass graves. So many times while shooting we discovered that there was no “family” order in the city, to the extent that we found in many cases children raising children. Clear evidence as to what the true value of the family is to be.
Mae Ling’s House
She had lived on Woman’s Island in an abandoned ammo dump building…until the government decided to tear it down, evicting Mae Ling and one other woman into the street. It was Lyla Trotter, of the Trotter Foundation (the sponsor of our photo trip), who found the money to build two new huts for Mae Ling and her friend. Trotters also presented an “Iron Buffalo” to the ladies that they might begin an Island business to help feed the community…rice and vegetables. Mae Ling was so excited to give us a tour of her new house.
The Children of Ta Khmau
As we made our way up and through the black water street of the “Alleyway”, back into Ta Khmau, a small gathering of children followed along behind. At one point, I turned with the camera and shot the photo of the children who knew we were leaving their village. I have known for some time that it is in the eyes that most stories are told. As I looked back at these nine, it was clear what they saw. Their only hope was leaving. For when they turned back, they were facing more poverty, hunger and the real possibility of being captured into the slave trade.
The Russian Market Dumpster
By midday, one can generally find spoiled food being thrown into the trash behind the Russian Market on the south side of Phnom Penh. As I was coming out of the market mid afternoon, having shot photos of the market people, I chanced upon a pair sharing some berries that had been discarded. The older one was big enough to climb up and into the dumpster to help feed her little brother. So rare…children sharing…and in desperation, children raising children.
It was late in the afternoon in a safe house (The Jesus House) when I caught this little girl sitting at a table with some very sad eyes. I walked over and tried to communicate with her, but received little or no response. She didn’t want to play a game or sing a song or even laugh. I asked the director about her and was told that it would soon be time to leave as the gates to the house would have to be closed for the evening and the children would have to go “home”.
The children of the Alleyway are resilient. As we met the families and watched the children play in the alley, along the black water trench, an amazing skill for having fun with one another became clear. The Alleyway was ripe with disease, vermin and filth, yet these children were able to find joy in one another and their childhood inventions. Inventions that were necessities, as we saw not one toy or game during the day we were there photographing. The question asked was, “How long can they remain so?”
Unable to sleep early one morning, I slipped out of the hotel and onto the street with the camera. Long before the sun came up, I found much of what I expected…trash pickers, street cleaners, push cart vendors, wanderers and prostitutes plying the streets and hotel sidewalks. As I snapped a few photos, I wondered what had happened that night that couldn’t be photographed…the thieves, the homeless, the oppressed and the many children that had been stolen into slavery to satisfy the sex tourist industry, just a few blocks away from where I sat.