French Network for Asian Studies International Conference
26-28 June 2017, Sciences Po.
Photo Display : A Matter of Time.
This series of images and texts provides a glimpse into prostitution, trafficking and AIDS in Southeast Asia. At the same time, it serves as a reflection on the nexus between photography and anthropology, photographic and ethnographic interactions.
I took this photograph of a teenager (left) of the Akha ethnic group visiting her mother (centre) in Tachilek, a town adjacent to Mae Sai, at the border between Myanmar and Thailand, in the Golden Triangle. At 14, she lives in the streets of Chiang Mai selling drugs and sexual services. In the picture, we see her boasting about the watch and the clothes her foreign “boyfriend” gave her. Like many images that attempt to portray prostitution, this picture does not show sex work, but a snippet of everyday life. As a result, it was not of interest to the media, NGOs, international organizations and donors that I approached to sell my photographs. It arouses little emotion and requires text to be understood. Above all, it diverts attention from the only issue that counts for many decision-makers, NGO workers and journalists: prostitution and the worst forms of exploitation and trafficking. This image, however, raises a central issue for prostitution in Southeast Asia, namely, the responsibility of families who depend on their children’s remittances. In order to overcome narratives of victimization, it is necessary to zoom out from prostitution itself so as to capture the social, economic and political structures that govern people’s lives. This undertaking comes at a price: a loss of appeal that many photographers and researchers are reluctant to pay. (Tachilek, Myanmar, 2003).
This photograph of a customer paying the price of a massage in a brothel in Phnom Penh is the culmination of several weeks of persuasion. I had to convince the brothel owner and her husband – a local policeman – to let me into their establishment, to allow me to approach each employee, to request permission to take photographs in increasingly private domains. This is how I was able to access the women’s clients before and after they procured sexual services. Only after a prolonged acquaintance was I able to capture this “decisive moment”. In fact, most images on prostitution are limited to images of women. In this photograph, I was able to bring together the three elements constituting the act of prostitution: the provider, the client and the objects of their transaction – that is, sex and money. The ethnographer also goes hunting for the “decisive moment”. Participatory observation involves sharing the respondent’s life, becoming involved in his/her activities and being accepted into his/her society. This method of immersion requires patience because most of the time spent in the field begins with administrative procedures, trivial discussions, repetitive interviews and anodyne observations. The ethnographer must be there when the incident occurs: when the mother who secretly prostitutes her daughter arranges the provision of a sexual service with her daughter’s client; when the police unexpectedly raid a brothel; or when a woman who has hidden her addiction pulls amphetamines from her bag. In photography as in ethnography, patience is key. (Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2002).
This photograph of a thirteen-year-old Vietnamese boy learning how to use a condom was taken at the Lotus Club, a drop-in centre for women and children engaged in prostitution in Svay Pak. Located eleven kilometres away from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, this village had two dozen brothels where hundreds of Vietnamese women and children sold sexual services. This image has a strong impact on the viewer as it reduces the existence of a child to the presumed suffering of his social and political condition. Yet, this picture is also comforting because it reproduces clichés on the most abusive and condemned forms of prostitution. In fact, it conceals more than it reveals: a shock of hair rather than a face, a social center rather than a brothel, a wooden phallus rather than a human penis. When it comes down to it, this image does not portray much. Instead, it provokes strong emotions and raises questions: who is this young boy? How did he arrive in Cambodia? Why has his family thrown him to the foreign “wolves” roaming the streets of Svay Pak? What does he feel about his foreign clients? And how does he perceive prostitution and the associated risks? The many questions that this image does not answer roused my curiosity about the subaltern, the representation of victims and the place of emotion in the global market of indignation. In turn, my political commitment was transformed into intellectual interest. This enabled me to overcome the limitations of the photographic gaze, the two-dimensional constraints of paper and the distorted framework of “human trafficking”, leading me to examine the intimate careers of Vietnamese sex workers in Southeast Asia. In other words, reflecting on images such as these propelled my transition from social reportage to social sciences (Svay Pak, Cambodia, 2002).
This picture shows three Cambodian children posing at the entrance of a house in Poipet, at the border between Cambodia and Thailand. An international organization had repatriated them from Bangkok, where they had been arrested for child begging. The social workers who had introduced them to me painted a bleak picture: these naive and innocent children would have been hired out or sold by their parents to criminal networks to be exploited. By taking the testimony of the social workers as fact, I became trapped in their discourse, unable to verify its authenticity because of a lack of means and linguistic skills. In this case, although I mastered the art of photography, I was imprisoned by a prefabricated and simplistic narrative which supports the trafficking paradigm. I asked myself: how can we produce alternative and more complex stories? How are we to meet hidden populations without depending on social services organizations? How can we preserve independence in a sensitive context where access to information is problematic? How can we portray trafficking without falling prey to the narrative of victimization? How can we transcribe the messy realities of the world into informed images? Although the social sciences eventually enabled me to address these questions in a way that freed me from common assumptions, these issues continue to haunt me. (Poipet, Cambodia, 2003).
AAT is the anti-trafficking NGO most exposed by media in Vietnamese
An unforgettable memory in my life
Recent statistics of the Ministry of Social Affairs of Vietnam have revealed that over 1,000 children across Vietnam are sexually abused on a yearly basis, meaning that one child falls victim every eight hours.
from 2014 to 2017. They are between 15 and 36 years old. They were arrested in a country where they were trafficked and forced into prostitution. They were identified for repatriation by our network and then disappeared. We warning embassies, police and international organizations of this situation since years without any success.