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Phuket photojournalism: The island through a lens

PHUKET: American photojournalist and 2013 National Geographic Traveler of the Year Alison Wright visited a Burmese camp at Rassada Pier along with local charity The Good Shepherd and captured the other side of life in Phuket – the one that doesn’t appear in the tourist brochures or glossy magazines.

Thursday 17 April 2014, 02:01PM

How did you first discover the Burmese camps in Phuket?

I was on a National Geographic assignment in Phuket and I met expat Vivienne Reis (from The Good Shepherd) who encouraged me to come to their photo exhibit at our hotel, Indigo Pearl, called Gaze for Hope. It focused on the children in the slums in the area.

The next day I was in the lobby ready to be picked up to go to the airport and spontaneously decided that I needed to stay to check these slums out.

What was the three-day experience in the Burmese camp like?
It is estimated that over two million Burmese refugees live in Thailand, with a high percentage living on Phuket. These Burmese fleeing the oppressive militant government of their country are illegally smuggled over the northern Thai-Burma border by traffickers with the promise of a better life on the other side. Often they are robbed and abandoned.
Many of these Burmese arrive in Thailand without proper documentation or have their passports and identity cards stolen and sold by the trafficker.

The majority of these immigrants are forced into gruelling labour on construction sites or sent out to sea on precarious fishing boats earning less than US$200 (B6,400) a month.
The women sort fish on the docks or peel the heads off small fish. One seven-kilo bag will bring in about B70. Most of the immigrant workers live in camps in Bangjo, consisting of mostly construction workers, and Rassada Pier, which houses most of the fisherman and their families. In this cycle of poverty and indentured financial debt the Burmese have little hope of ever breaking out of the squalid conditions in which they now live, let alone ever making it back to their own country.

The Good Shepherd has set up a small basic school for the children. They have also set up a home for pregnant women and are working to get a mobile medical unit that can visit and provide basic healthcare to those who live in the camps.

When you photographed the Burmese, did you hope it could improve life for them?
Yes, of course, that’s always the point. I would hope that local hotels might want to get involved and help clean the area up, if not for humanitarian reasons then as a way of improving the real estate of their island. The Burmese certainly don’t want to live like this, but they have no recourse, no way to better themselves.

Tell us about the bus crash which nearly killed you
I lived in Nepal for five years. In Asia I was living the life I had always dreamed of. Every morning before I’d open my eyes, I’d think this is exactly where I want to be, exactly what I want to be doing. That’s when life throws you a curveball. On January 2, 2000, my life was almost cut short during a horrific bus accident on a remote jungle road in Laos. I was sitting right at the point of impact, pinned by the giant logging truck that had sheared our bus in half.

Of those who survived I suffered the most extensive injuries; multiple broken bones including my back, pelvis, all my left side ribs. Most alarming were my collapsed lungs, herniated heart and multiple life threatening internal injuries that I didn’t learn about until later.

The locals brought me to their village and sewed my damaged body together as best they could. There was no hospital, no phones, no painkillers of any kind available.
The villagers continued to worry and care for me as darkness fell. Ten hours passed. When it became clear that I was not going to make it through the night I wrote a note to my family, telling them how and where I had died. It felt important to assure them that I didn’t die alone and afraid.

As I closed my eyes and surrendered, an amazing thing happened: I let go of all fear. My body took on a lightness and I was released from its profound suffering. A bone-deep peace came over me, and calm prevailed. There was nothing left to do, nowhere left to go. You don’t get closer to death than laying eviscerated on that roadside and I dipped more than a toe into feeling the other side of my own mortality.

Tell us about the Faces of Hope Fund
Through my photography I strive to create global awareness, and through my foundation, the Faces of Hope Fund to give back in some small way to the communities that I photograph. I started this foundation after barely surviving the bus accident.

I experienced first hand what it means to nearly die from lack of access to medical care. I started my foundation ( to help women and children and their communities in crisis through medical care and education. So little money can do so much in these countries.

The first thing I did was to bring five American doctors from Dr2Dr and US$10,000 (B324,000) worth of medical supplies to the villagers in Laos who saved my life. Every day I remember that I’m alive because of the kindness of strangers and I want to give back in some way.

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