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Girls Turn Camera on World

August 7, 2008

By Jennifer K. Morita, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Aug. 7–It wasn’t something the volunteers set out to pursue, until divine intervention stirred a generous community.

It began with 55 point-and-shoot digital cameras, donated by Hewlett-Packard employees in Roseville.

It found a home when a Sacramento artist offered gallery space in the studio she had just opened.

But a Sierra College photography instructor made it possible by teaching victims of Cambodia’s child prostitution trade how to turn the camera lenses on the world around them.

“Now We Have Hope,” an exhibit featuring 40 photographs taken by teenage girls rescued from Cambodian brothels, opens this week at Patris Studio at S12 in Sacramento during the Second Saturday Art Walk.

The monthlong exhibit will conclude Sept. 6 with an auction to raise money for Agape, a Rocklin-based nonprofit dedicated to ending child sex trafficking in Cambodia.

“You really get the opportunity to view Cambodia through the girls’ eyes and hear their hearts through the titles on their photographs,” Agape’s director of development, Renee Burkhalter, said.

Agape, founded in 1989, runs rehabilitation centers in Cambodia, where rescued girls receive long-term care, allowing them to heal physically and emotionally.

In May, Sierra College instructor Randy Snook spent four days at one of the rehab centers, teaching the basics of photography to about 50 girls ages 11 to 18.

“They’re full of hope, full of joy,” Snook said. “They’re just the sweetest girls. You’d never know the horrors they’d been through.”

Lecturing wasn’t easy, especially since Snook had to work through translators who had to interpret in both Khmer and Vietnamese.

Each morning, the girls would gather in the dining commons for lessons before Snook took them on field trips to the local market, nearby villages and even the infamous sites later referred to as the “Killing Fields,” where more than a million people died during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.

“I was amazed at the talent some of these young ladies had,” Snook said. “I talked to them about really trying to express what they felt about an area as they were taking photographs. I think a lot of that comes out in the titles they gave them.”

When the four days were up, Snook came away with 8,000 images of children in ramshackle huts, women selling pork and eggs in the marketplace, as well as scenic shots of nearby rivers and temples.

“They’re teenage girls, and they’re just like teenage girls here. They wanted photographs of themselves and their friends,” Snook said.

“We’d get to a location, and I’d tell them to concentrate on seeing what’s important, and what that place means to them for the first hour, and they were really good about it. Then I’d let them spend the next half-hour just having fun taking pictures of each other.”

Burkhalter and former Adventure Christian Church pastor Don Brewster said they hoped the experience would not only teach the girls a skill but produce images worthy of a special exhibit to raise awareness and money for Agape.

Two years ago, Brewster and his wife, Bridget, opened Agape Restoration Center in Phnom Penh.

Today, the center is home to 49 girls and has reintegrated 11 women back into the community so far.

Agape officials hope to open another facility as soon as funds are available.

“The level of care we provide is not cheap because we go beyond just housing and feeding them,” Burkhalter said. “Our goal is to develop their abilities so when they leave, they can have respectable work and contribute to the decency of their families, communities and country.”

The Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs estimates at least 30,000 children in the country are trapped in prostitution at any given time, according to Burkhalter.

“I’ve seen estimates as high as 40,000,” Burkhalter said. “It’s a very desperate situation Human … trafficking has become a huge, global problem, and the numbers are hard to substantiate.”

Children as young as 5 are sold into prostitution by relatives — sometimes intentionally, or, in some cases, family members are tricked into giving them up.

Other children go willingly to save their families from poverty.

They live in brothels or are sold as sex slaves to pedophiles from all over the world.

The issue of human trafficking weighed heavily on Sacramento artist Patris’ heart.

“I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what,” Patris said. “It turns out my studio was just the thing they needed.

“I was so moved the first time I saw the photographs. I cried.”

Snook and the Agape organization also produced a 78-page book featuring 96 of the girls’ photographs. Copies will be sold for a suggested donation of $75.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

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