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The Human Cost shines a light on slavery in Southeast Asia

Bot Loum, 40, a former rice farmer who spent six years onboard a Thai fishing vessel, is photographed in Poung Rou village, Srey Snom district, Siem Reap province.
Bot Loum, 40, a former rice farmer who spent six years onboard a Thai fishing vessel, is photographed in Poung Rou village, Srey Snom district, Siem Reap province. George Nickels

The Human Cost shines a light on slavery in Southeast Asia

A series of six photographs by Siem Reap-based photojournalist George Nickels will go on display tonight at Mirage. The images include four portraits of Cambodians trafficked into slavery who he interviewed as part of his reporting for the Guardian, for which he accompanied Italian NGO Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (GVC). Nickels spoke with The Post’s Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon about his photographs and the scope of the dangers Cambodian men face in finding work abroad.

How did you first get involved with this subject matter?
A friend of mine’s brother got trafficked into slavery. A broker came across the border to his village in Cambodia to offer a job in construction in Thailand, and he ended up on a fishing vessel for nine months with no money. Luckily he got out and found his way home. When [the vessel] went to the port to offload the fish, he escaped and got to Cambodia. This was in 2015.

I thought there must be a lot more cases of human trafficking that involve trafficking on ships. So I found an NGO [GVC] close to where I live that was dealing with migration and human trafficking, and I went to six or seven different self-help groups in different provinces in Cambodia and started interviewing different people.

I was then approached by the European Journalism Centre and the Guardian newspaper. I just had an exhibition in London at the Guardian’s headquarters called Faces of Slavery . . . but they’re different photographs than the photos I’ll be showing tomorrow.

So you first started documenting human trafficking two years ago?
I knew it was happening, but most of the focus on human trafficking in Cambodia is sex slavery and child trafficking. I knew that was happening, as it was in the press a lot. I didn’t realise a lot of men, and young men, were getting trafficked. I thought the majority was women and children. A lot of them are trying to find work in Thailand to support their families. It’s very hard to know exactly [how many they are] because there’s very little data, but from my experience travelling to villages it’s a lot – a lot more than I thought.

Roum Touch, 41, a farmer who was enslaved on a Thai fishing vessel.
Roum Touch, 41, a farmer who was enslaved on a Thai fishing vessel. George Nickels

The majority of the [villagers] in our interviews [with GVC] . . . didn’t hear from the men who went away to work.

I’ve read recently in reports that it’s getting better, but I don’t believe that to be honest. I think it’s getting a lot worse. That’s why I’m carrying on reporting on the issue, because I feel it’s getting worse, not better.

How did you go about doing the portraits, and how did your subjects react to knowing their images might be shown publicly in the media and now exhibited?
For the portraits of [former] slaves, I sat down with these guys for a couple of hours, speaking to them, gaining their trust and taking their photos. I do have two people [I photographed] who will be there going to the exhibition. They were happy to tell their stories; they didn’t want it to happen to anybody else. They had a very traumatic ordeal; nobody wants to be kidnapped. For most of the people who I interviewed, it was more about the story than the photo. But as I left I asked for a photograph . . . Basically I just positioned the guys in the doorway of their house and took the photos. [They were done with] no flash, completely natural lighting, very, very little editing work.

What do you hope viewers will come away with?
An understanding that there’s a major issue of human trafficking and modern day slavery happening in Southeast Asia. There’s a lot of focus on women and children, [but] there’s a lot happening to men as well. I just want to bring light to the issue.

The Human Cost opens tonight at 6pm at Mirage, Street 27 and Wat Bo Road, Siem Reap. It runs through December 29. For more information, including the stories of the interviewees, see Nickels' website.

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