When he first visited the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 2011, Ian Flanders met a prostitute waiting for business. Talking to her briefly, revealed the look of desolation and despair in her eyes. Flanders discovered that several women like her had been lured into the city with promises of café jobs, which never worked out. And in fact, were trapped by (false) debts to their traffickers. After witnessing a series of traumatic moments with the women in the Cambodian brothels, Flanders was convinced that the situation was beyond a photography project.
On his return to Sydney, Flanders mailed two of the largest NGOs to seek help but none was forthcoming. He decided to go back to Phnom Penh and build a relationship with the sex workers. By the end of 2014, Flanders had more than just a gritty photographic expose of the sex-slave industry in Cambodia. He handed over all recorded documents and photographs to relevant agencies, repeatedly following with them to take action. In November 2014, thanks to his follow-ups the brothels were raided. Eight women and three children were rescued, two traffickers were prosecuted.
However, things took an unexpected turn for Flanders. “After helping one of the young women return to Vietnam, it wasn’t too long before she came back to the brothel, this time with her nine-year-old daughter,” said Flanders in an interview with online magazine rightnow.org. “I informed the NGO and passed on their offer of rehabilitation for both her and her daughter – she chose to remain with her daughter in the brothel.”
Flanders had spent three years documenting the women in the brothels to try and build a bridge to their freedom. He never expected to confront the realisation that an opportunity to be free was not enough. This taught him about how complex the lives of sex workers were. In the process, he learnt that the choice to cross over may have been a bridge too far for some of them.
Ian Flanders is a self taught documentary photographer based in Sydney, Australia. His first project Cruising, was shown at Reportage Photo Festival in Sydney. He attempts to engage and confront viewers with the harsh realities he photographs.
By The River is part of the exhibitions line-up of this edition of the Delhi Photo Festival starting October 30 at the IGNCA, Delhi.