July 2009

by Tim Matsui

One of the hardest things in Phnom Penh is finding quiet. At 3 a.m. it's possible but starting shortly before dawn the motorbikes begin puttering, honking at every intersection. Soon, the motos are joined by heavy diesels. Then, ever present in the booming city, construction work and dust add to the exhaust fumes. It only relents in the cooling late-night hours. Sweat dripping, I was trying to find a moment between passing motos to record the account of a sex trafficking victim. It was a microcosm of working in Cambodia and it required patience, discomfort and tenacity.

(© Tim Matsui /
At the center of a circle of gambling women sits a mother who is pimping her daughter in the slums of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
In early 2008 I arrived in Phnom Penh for my second time, intending to spend upwards of three months delving into the issue of human trafficking: slavery. My thesis was that Cambodia, a post-conflict country with prevalent human trafficking, was struggling to move "from victim to survivor." Over time what I've found is this isn't a popular story. Or, that I'm not telling it with enough pain, anguish and horror.

The reason I want to tell victim/survivor stories is I believe through them we learn how, even as bystanders, we are a part of the violence. I tell them with less focus on the crime and more on the circumstance or solution. If I merely did a run-and-gun piece on slavery it would serve little purpose and only traumatize the subject and viewer. My portfolio might look good but what would I have done? So, ponderously, I am trying to map its complexity.

On the tile of my guesthouse wall, in Dry Erase, I outlined the work of government agencies, police and NGOs representing the literal Cambodia. The figurative Cambodia cascaded down the wall in a tree chart of Srey Neth's story: virginity sold at 14, forced prostitution, HIV, rescue, healing, and now, a future.

(© Tim Matsui /
"The Building" -- a well-known slum in Phnom Penh which is home to pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers.
At Transitions Global, a victim aftercare center, I coached Srey Neth with her English as she struggled in front of the camera; the center director translated. In the growing heat of the still air, we were interrupted by the sound of trucks, motos and the other residents. We were recording her testimony, the story she wanted to share with the world. Over her shoulder a fluorescent lamp provided a "hair light." To my left, clamped to wicker furniture, were two desk lamps draped in lace: my key light. I was recording parts on a consumer-grade JVC HD video camera. The rest she related in her native language, speaking into a Sennheiser shotgun mic plugged into an Edirol R-09.

With her story narrated, I needed portraits, reportage and B-roll. I needed images that would fit with her voice. Doing so meant asking Srey Neth to dig into her past. With Transitions Global staff we went to the slum where she was imprisoned, raped and beaten. The surrounding blocks were filled with U.N. offices and, on the other side, the plush World Vision compound; the proximity of her protector and savior was not lost on me.

She seemed indifferent; perhaps she was dissociating or perhaps she was feeling empowered. Maybe both. She had said she didn't want to die young of AIDS with her pain meaning nothing. She wanted to tell her story to help others.

(© Tim Matsui /
Sex trafficking victim Srey Neth revisits the place of her captivity in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
To go back to that Dry Erase-covered wall of my guesthouse, Srey Neth's story was only a segment of the narrative. During that trip I talked my way into the jail cell of a pedophile, did the Cambodian brothel drive-by, tried connecting with students and went from victim center to victim center. The Asia Foundation has said that the selling of children is broadly seen as an unpleasant but a forgivable economic necessity. I kept looking for pieces to show the country reshaping its social norms and I left feeling incomplete. Even Srey Neth's story hung somewhat nebulous. I was burnt out.

That November, with newly found funding, I went back to Cambodia. This time, I tightened my focus onto the government and to labor exploitation. Many people see sex trafficking first, because it's "sexy," but they miss the more prevalent trafficking for labor. With an academic distance, I interviewed government ministers, went to a landmine-ridden border crossing, a military-run drug rehab camp, and followed the MTV Exit campaign, which was a series of anti-trafficking-themed rock concerts starting in Cambodia. It was an attempt at mass-marketing social change, one MTV had employed in Europe. But at the heart of my story, I was waiting for a government raid on traffickers. The intelligence and access were there but likely due to Cambodia's notorious corruption, nothing happened until months after I left.

(© Tim Matsui /
A Cambodian woman waits with other undocumented migrants while a local boat pilot determines if rough river water is safe enough to cross. She and the others are on their way to Kao Wong, an unofficial border crossing watched by Cambodian military police who are largely ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers and Thai army. With land mines planted nearly everywhere, it takes a guide with minefield knowledge and relationships with the border patrol to get migrants into Thailand where they look for jobs. This leaves the migrants vulnerable to some of the well-documented cases of labor and sex abuse at the hands of human traffickers working with some guides.
These other stories are a dizzying array of important background for the overall story. Focusing on Srey Neth is easier; she is a sex victim and has a solid narrative arc. The rest of it – the labor, migration, poverty, health care, education – these things don't fit into people's stereotypes of human trafficking. These things are ambiguous, muddy, and people need to look twice to see the importance of all these "peripherals." They are crucial issues with direct ties to reducing slavery, yet I've been told that viewers need to see a victim's pain or they won't be moved. But that's just it: human trafficking hides in plain sight.

On this last trip, I visited Srey Neth to update her story. She now teaches English to other trafficking victims at Transitions Global, works at a popular yoga studio and teaches children in Phnom Penh's slums—including her old home. She is a survivor. Her poise is confident and purposeful. I can distill this down to a victim/survivor story, but all of the peripheral details come into play for her. It gives me hope, for maybe I can also close the arc of Cambodia's story.

If I can take anything from her story or those of the others, it is to find patience and remain determined. The human trafficking story is large enough for chapters: it needs books, entire libraries. But really, it needs dedicated journalists and editors who have felt the immediacy of a victim's struggle, seen the strength of a survivor's will and who have themselves freed their mind of preconceptions and social norms. Human trafficking is poverty, education, gender equality, clean water; slavery of the vulnerable is only a symptom. If we, the media, can be as flexible and resilient as survivors like Srey Neth, I believe we can tell a story that engages the globe and causes change. Or, at least, that's what I was hoping as the sweat trickled off my nose and I prepared the camera for another take.

Cambodia: Srey Neth from on Vimeo.

© Tim Matsui

Tim Matsui is a Seattle-based photojournalist using multimedia to add depth to personal projects on alternative energy, the environment and social issues. He is the founder of the 501(c)3 nonprofit FEAR Project, an organization using documentary multimedia to create dialog about the lasting effects of sexual violence on individuals and communities. His most recent self-assigned long-term work documents the global nature of human trafficking. Tim is the recipient of grants from the Open Society Institute, Fund for Investigative Journalism and 4Culture Arts Program. He is a Blue Earth Alliance Sponsored Project alumnus and regularly consults for the World Affairs Council and U.S. State Department's Foreign Visitor Program.

Tim Matsui's Web site is:

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