The last thing Ian expected when he finally built a bridge to freedom for a group of enslaved prostitutes in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, was the confronting realisation that opportunity was not enough. The arduous and precarious task of building trust and developing relationships with some of these women – who had no reason to trust anyone – had educated him in the complexity of their lives. Regardless, he had no foresight that the choice to cross may have been a bridge too far.

Watch the ‘By the River’ video

Opportunity is not enough

Ian first visited Phnom Penh, in 2011 where he stumbled across a young street-prostitute prospecting along the Tonle Sap River. After a brief discussion he became struck and ultimately haunted by the look of despair and desolation in her eyes. These young betrayed eyes drew Ian’s inquiry and finally his entire creative focus.

Back in Sydney, Ian emailed two of the largest NGO’s in the region for some advice, but frustratingly received no reply, so further down the rabbit hole he dived. He secretively built up relationships with many of the women surviving in small shacks and shelters where they never strayed. In particular, a desperate woman named Anh and her ‘dangerously’ coming-of-age daughter assisted him in discovering and documenting a shocking system of debt slavery where young women had to work off never ending payments to their controlling traffickers.

Five self-funded trips to Phnom Penh later and Ian was slowly realising there were more chains on these women than he could ever have imagined. Ian grappled with the likes of the women’s cultural beliefs, local realities and a sense of filial duty that further inhibited the women from leaving.

However, he simply could not cast aside his own morality after witnessing first hand the young women feeding their drug addiction, bruises from beatings, self-harm and submitting to their work duty no matter the condition of their health. In one instance, Ian went to find a pharmacy after seeing one young girl vomiting and holding her stomach in terrible pain – upon returning to the shack only moments later, she had already been chosen by a visiting client.

“Something would happened to me, and I would be beaten up and not allowed to abandon here…”

– Anh

“When I came here I was told to work as a sale assistant in the bar… When being here then I’ve just knew such a job I have no choice but to accept it.”

– Anh

The Posters

Coating the walls, contradicting the stench, heat and damp mattress on the concrete floor, the walls inside the shacks housing the young Vietnamese women are lined with bright torn and tarnished posters of Thai, Korean pop and movie stars, flowers, babies and glorified, serene landscapes. They created a sense of fantasy, an escapism – so far removed from the silent misery within the walls of the shacks.

“Over here is very powerful, can’t fight them.”

– Anh

“Please don’t take photo, they will notice then my sister would be beaten up.”

– Anh

Lesser of two evils

The brothel, located in an infamous area in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, is made up of three conjoining shacks. The women could move freely between the shacks behind the front doors as each shack wall had a makeshift divider. That is as free as the women could be. The doors would open at dusk and close as dawn approached, and when they closed, the doors would be padlocked from the outside. This was the young womens routine, no matter the condition of their health, the young women were abused – every day.

My first encounter with Anh taught me the lack of choices the women have. Anh undressed as soon as the wooden door closed behind us even though I put my hand up to imply stop. I sat on the edge of the filthy mattress and said “no boom-boom”. She looked very confused and uncomfortable as to why I would say such a thing. While using hand gestures and whispering I bring out my camera slowly and show her I want to photograph the room. Anh pleaded with me. “Noooo – Mamasan”. She then illustrated with hand gestures in no uncertain terms, she would be physically hit. She pulled her knees up to her chest into the fetal position looking very uncomfortable rocking back and forth. She continued to plead in a soft voice. I sat beside her trying – albeit futile attempts to make her feel comfortable. In the dim light I noticed Anh had started to cry. I sat closer to her and tentatively put my arm around her. Her English was very basic, I asked as simply as I could “Are you ok? Did someone bring you here?” She never made eye contact – head down on her knees crying.

“You promise me that my picture here would not be published in newspaper otherwise death is on the way”

– Pham

“I don’t need anything at all in terms of happiness, what I only need is some day I could live with my mother and my child. That’s enough happiness for me.”

– Anh

Restricted Leave

After three long years, Ian had something a lot more valuable than a gritty photographic expose of the sex-slave industry in Cambodia. He nervously handed over recorded photos and evidence to the NGO’s and hounded them for action. On November 12th 2014, the shacks were raided and eight women and three children were rescued – one of those children was the nine year old daughter of Anh. Also, two traffickers were charged and prosecuted.

All of the rescued women were offered free housing in the Agape Missions NGO shelter, along with access to education, healthcare and a job, as a way of helping them build a life beyond the misery of the shacks. Unfortunately, many of the women returned to the only thing they knew, to their addictions and to where the pressure to change disappeared and things made sense… it broke his heart. However, he is buoyed that Anh’s daughter is still living in the rehabilitation centre. This is a critical step in breaking the intergenerational chain, the education she’ll receive will hopefully lead to a life of self-determination and options, rather than the bleak future she undoubtedly had in front of her.

There were times during this journey when Ian felt like a man on a meaningful mission, a champion of humanity! But the rejection of freedom from enslaved prostitution by most of these young women also left Ian feeling naïve and privileged.

“I really don’t know that; however I wish people would always consider me as a lovely and noteworthy person. OK.”

– Pham

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