Last week, I received an email that made me cry. It was from a 16-year-old friend whom I met several years ago before she was even a teenager, when I was commissioned to make portraits of her and her younger sister. I have had the privilege of a special vantage point from which to watch her grow up, owing to a shared passion we have developed for a small organization called Homeland Cambodia.
Homeland Cambodia is a local NGO which rescues children from the sex trade and other abuses, re-integrates them when feasible, and is a permanent, loving home for many. Homeland runs a Residential Centre near Cambodia’s border with Thailand, in which approximately 50 children live permanently.
I discovered Homeland as a result of my participation in a Channel News Asia documentary series called Asia Exposed. I was featured as a photographer and artist in an episode of its second season.. For the project, I was challenged to photograph a story about child sex trafficking in Cambodia, in an area near the border with Thailand. For the piece, I interviewed and photographed a 15-year-old girl named ‘Maly’.
Maly had been twice sold to sex traffickers by her mother: the first time when she was five years old, and after rescue and a brief reunion, again when she was seven. I interviewed Maly at her home, the Residential Centre of Homeland, heard her heart-breaking story and created photographs of her without revealing her identity.
Concealing her likeness was essential for her protection, yet presented perhaps the most challenging portrait assignment I have ever had. Making her portraits required me to push myself creatively, and spontaneously. I embraced a process that worked metaphorically rather than literally, integrating images relevant to her story into her portraits, to both enhance and purposefully obscure her likeness.
Making these portraits was a moving experience for me; the process moved them from static images to multi-dimensional personal landscapes. Their narrative touched others as well, and I was able to show them, and to auction them for benefit of Maly and Homeland’s other residents. I had found a new freedom with portraits that extended beyond capture to creation.
‘Maly’ became my abiding friend. I feel a responsibility for her future that has informed and shaped my life. Making the portraits of her for Asia Exposed, I felt an intensity of human connection that triggered the power of the works. I learned anew that deep connection with a subject profoundly affects an image’s power and story, and is far more important in a photographer than technical skill or equipment.
That trip triggered in Natalie an abiding passion for social justice work. When she returned, she promptly founded a service club at her school, recruited many devoted members, and she leads it passionately still. She and her cohort raise tens of thousands of dollars and visit the children at Homeland’s Residential Centre twice every year. Together, they fund and build playgrounds, fix dormitories, plant gardens, test eyes, purchase eyeglasses, measure feet and purchase shoes, and very importantly have developed deep bonds with the children who benefit.
Here is the email I received from Natalie last week:
“Dear Martha, Just a quick note to say a big thank you. Today, I was awarded the [Singapore American School] Award for Service for my work with Homeland. As you know, working with Homeland has been meaningful to me beyond measure. Martha, thank you for being my inspiration on this journey. Love, Natalie
I seek to create impact in every assignment I do: to create a moving experience for both the client and for future viewers of the work. Maly inspired me to push further with my art, and taught me that I can leverage my work to powerfully impact organizations and causes that I feel strongly about. The body of work that I created as a result of my experience shooting for Asia Exposed, I harnessed to raise awareness, support and money for Homeland. But more importantly, that impact spawned more impact, through Natalie and others who were moved into action. The images I created and the stories that they told inspired others – even kids — and the beautiful result was that they took action on that inspiration.
My twenty-year career as a photographer in Asia has progressed and transformed, right alongside of me. My work has deepened. It reflects my subjects as mirrors of our shared interactions, and testifies to my values: authenticity, connectivity, integrity, experience. The experience a person has through the creative process of a photo shoot, whether it is a branding portfolio session for an entrepreneur, a multi-location family portrait shoot, or the complex, layered work involved in creating a legacy work of personalized art, the experience is essential. The power of the finished work depends on it.
To be told by a child that you have inspired a passion for them that is ‘meaningful beyond measure’, is an incredible privilege and an honor. I am honored to have been an inspiration on Natalie’s journey. But she should know, she has truly become an inspiration on mine.
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