The truth is, I've tried writing this blog post several times now, and each time I have to get up from the computer. There are so many emotions, feelings and thoughts that swirl through my mind that I don't know where to start. But I have to start somewhere and that goes back to almost 2 years ago. It was at a time I distinctly remember sitting down with my Mom and telling her that I needed to do something bigger with my photography, something on a larger scale where I was not only capturing images of families and important milestones in my client's lives, but more along the lines of telling a story of someone I didn't know, and sharing that with the world. I referenced images that famed photographer Steve McCurry has captured, most notably the Afghani Girl featured on the cover of National Geographic.
It wasn't until about a year ago that I met a fellow photographer who told me about The Giving Lens. It was exactly what I was looking for, an organization that combines a love of photography, travel and giving back. I watched closely as each month they announced new and exciting workshops, and when this particular project was announced last fall, I KNEW it was for me. It was to be their first all-woman's team, traveling to Thailand to partner with Children's Organization of Southeast Asia (COSA), an NGO which rescues, rehabilitates and works with girls at-risk of the sex-trafficking industry. Within minutes of its announcement I submitted my application and was lucky enough to be chosen to be 1 of 7 women from all around the country to participate in the project. We would be teaching the girls of COSA photography as a means of empowerment, showing them that the way they see the world is important and unique, and that they have a voice and can express it through photographs. On very short notice, myself and the other participants were able to collect a total of 27 gently used digitial cameras for the girls to use and keep as part of our donation to the girls of COSA. A huge thank you to all who donated a camera to make an impact on these girls' lives.
COSA was started by war photographer Mickey Choothesa. He was born and raised in Bangkok and at the age of 14 his family then moved to Connecticut. He always knew he wanted to be a photographer and eventually covered war and areas of disruption for publications such as National Geographic, Time and Life. But it wasn't until his expeditions to Thailand, Burma and surrounding countries did he see first-hand the extent of the sex-trafficking industry. Driven to make a difference and help the girls taken from the hill tribes, he then foundeded COSA where he has dedicated his life to fighting sex-trafficking in Thailand.
COSA currently houses 35 girls, with 15 more soon to be arriving to the facility. Girls have either been rescued or are at-risk of entering the highly lucritive sex industry, and with Mickey's intervention, he takes over legal guardianship of the girls, provides them education, citizenship, self-worth and empowerment. They are already outgrowing their current location and are in the process of building a new campus which will house up to 100 girls.
On our first day at the COSA campus there was a bit of nervousness that overcame myself and the other women in our group. I felt unsure, were the girls going to be reserved, withdrawn, or unwilling to participate? But it wasn't long before I realized that each and every girl at COSA was vibrant, enthusiastic, fully engaged in the task at hand, and welcoming to our entire group.
We had 2 full days with the girls as they rotated between photography class with us, and english classes with the long-term volunteers. During the week they attended local schools, but their weekends were packed with education and activities as well.
On the first day working with the girls, we formulated a scavender hunt where there was a list of items the girls needed to photograph around the campus. Items on the list were things like colors, someone jumping, a nice smile, and concepts such as strength and hope. It was when we came to the concepts on the list that I was blown away with what the girls photographed.
(Above image by Anna Lee-Fields)
The girl I was partnered with in the morning was a teenager named Yui who aspired to be a translator. When she had to photograph something relating to strength, she took a photo of a heart drawn on the chalkboard. When she had to photograph something relating to hope, she photographed the COSA logo. It was at moments like that where I fought hardest against my urge to cry. After all, COSA is all about empowerment and I wanted to empower Yui in that moment that her vision and creativity was unique and impactful.
(Above image by Wendy Savage)
In the afternnoon we rotated and worked with the younger girls where I was partnered with Joy and Maey. Both high-energy girls, playful and completly bonded as friends who entered COSA at the same time and have become as close as sisters. Those smiles were completely contagious!
Our second full day at COSA working with the girls was focused on storytelling. We asked them, what does a day in your life look like? So again with Yui, we went into her dorm, photographed her bed, the items at her nightstand, and her closet where she chose which clothes to wear for the day. It was at that moment she pulled out her favorite things and prized possessions, her books! She is an avid reader and just like me, treasures her books as a means of learning about the world, expanding one's vision, increasing her vocabulary, and opening up her creativity. Although most of the books she owned were Thai, she did divulge to me that she read the Twilight series and loved it!
We then ventured to the kitchen, took a short walk to the local temple, as well as visited their school. There is one thing for sure, there was no shortage of laughter, hugs, and a sense of excitement and creativity. Each of the 35 girls throughout the day exceeded our expectations of stepping outside their comfort zones, taking on the scavenger hunt and documenting a day in their life.
We ended our last day at COSA with some fun and creative portraits of the older girls where they each had an opportunity to write on the chalkboard what they wanted to be when they grow up. I was amazed by the hope and aspirations of the girls. They each know how lucky they are and the endless possibilties which are afforded to them at COSA versus staying in the hill tribes or being sold into the sex industry. By coming to COSA, they have been empowered to create a life only thought of in their dreams.
My time at COSA albeit short, was one of the most impactful experiences in my life thus far. Everything from the welcoming to the COSA facility from Operations Manager Steven, the opportunity to sit down privately with Mickey, my fellow ladies on the photo project, and of course each and every girl at COSA. Girls, you touched my heart in a way words can not describe. Your ability to come from such undesirable situations and live your lives with grace, enthusiasm and gratitude, is a true testament to the human spirit and one that I admire greatly. I feel compelled to share your stories, teach the world about the issue of sex and human trafficking, and help bring awareness to these horrible acts continuing in our world. I think of Yui, Joy and Maey often, wondering what they are doing, what dreams they have, and how my little time there might have contributed in some way to their empowerment and confidence. To all the girls of COSA, I pray for you daily and am making a commitment to come back and visit.
(Above image by Nicole S. Young)