I can’t say for sure those were my exact words but the sentiment was the same. What was meant as a word of caution wasn’t taken that way. Brad was taking a team to Southeast Asia to gather media about the trafficking of children for sex. When he first approached me about coming on board as the official photographer for this new endeavor I wasn’t what you would call the ideal choice. A couple years previous my wife, Rebekah, and I packed up and moved to New York from Oklahoma. I had left a job there with an event photography company to pursue a retouching career. We had to downsize considerably and my aspirations as a photographer didn’t make the cut. I was burnt out on photography. I didn’t even own a camera. Still, Brad asked and I said yes. He saw something in me. I didn’t get it, but I trusted his judgment.
I knew a little about the issue just by being friends with Brad. His passion was undeniable. He was haunted by what he had seen and experienced. He told me the stories and it was too horrible to believe. I had a child of my own and shuddered to think of my daughter suffering a similar fate. I acted out of a sense of fatherly duty, but I still enjoyed a comfortable distance. It wasn’t really my cause…yet.
I had to overcome a lot in the following months to make the trip possible. The first obstacle was asking for help that I find excruciating. With Rebekah’s help and support I created a fundraising campaign reaching out to friends, family, or anyone willing to listen to ask for a hand in purchasing equipment. I created a modest budget reluctantly put out the request. The response was humbling. Keeping in mind that I had no real demonstrable evidence that I had the talent or even the aptitude to do what I had been tasked to do I was overwhelmed by how much support and encouragement I received. I successfully met my goal and was emboldened by all the love and prayers. These people saw something in me. I didn’t get it but I had no choice but to trust their judgment.
As the trip approached my fears and anxieties grew. I didn’t want to fail my friends and supporters but most of al I didn’t want to fail the children I was trying to help. I did a ton of research on the issue and documentary photography in general. I had so many questions. How do you communicate something so big and complex with a photograph? How do you tell this story in a way that people will get it when I’m not sure I even get it? By the time the plane left the ground I had many more questions than answers.
The trip itself is a blur in my memory. However, the entire experience can be distilled down to one moment in a poverty-stricken neighborhood outside Phnom Penh that held the horrible distinction of being a top destination for pedophiles. On a street lined with rundown old homes a woman with a little girl called to out us. The translator, a local community outreach worker, explained that she had offered us “use” of her daughter for about $5. The look on that little girls face will be forever burned into my memory. My heart shattered. I wanted to save that girl, and every other little girl and boy who is forced to suffer a similar fate. It all became real to me in that moment. I finally got it.
Since that day, I have struggled to find the right way to tell these stories. I remember feeling like a failure once the time came to make sense of what I shot on that trip. Everything seemed to fall short. Yet, when the exhibit was shown to the public for the first time those in attendance were deeply moved by what they saw. They were getting it.
It all boils down to this one thought. Whatever natural talents or abilities a person may have there is still one special gift we each possess; one unique tool we have in the fight to bring this issue out of the shadows: our story. Each of us has a role to play if we are to see an end to slavery in our time. Our stories can be a catalyst to inspiring others to action. It has always been my dream for iEmpathize to be a platform for people to share their stories. The voices of victims, care workers, law enforcement and supporters joined together have the power to affect hearts and minds.
Since that trip to Cambodia and Thailand years ago I have had the privilege of being part of other projects. Each time I walk away unsatisfied thinking I could do better. I have no intention of giving up but I need your help. Join with me and let’s bear this burden together. The more we share our reasons for getting involved the more opportunities we create for others to connect in a deeply profound and lasting way. So please keep telling your stories. If talking isn’t your thing then write, paint, dance, sing, photograph, etc. Just don’t ever stop sharing. It could make all the difference in the world.