On Friday I spent the day shooting photos for Nightlight International. Nightlight is an organization that helps women escape the sex industry in Bangkok, Thailand. They provide women who want to leave the sex industry with jobs, counseling, and education.
While these are the tangible things they are providing, they are really providing love, hope, acceptance, courage, independence, and ultimately communicating value.
On Friday I got to see the full cycle of the process. I got to see the before and after of 10 years of hard work, dedication and love. I think it was more powerful for me to see it because I got to see the process backwards.
Let me explain a little bit.
Every weekday morning at 9am Nightlight starts the day with a chapel service where the women (who have left prostitution and joined the program) lead their peers in worship. I arrived a little early and got to watch the worship team warm up and see people coming in and preparing for worship.
As worship began, I spent some time just watching and listening. It was all in the Thai language so, though I could recognize some of the tunes, I was really just left to contemplate the emotion and the realities of the moment. It was very serene and peaceful. It was joyful at times and there were times of heavy petition to God. Tears were shed, cares were set before God and He was worshiped with grateful and thankful hearts.
As I sat there, I thought about how it must feel to be accepted by God after all they have been through. Then I felt God saying “You are no different. Your sins may be different but they are no less needful of my grace”. That is a hard thing to hear in that place. It is easy to look at people who find themselves in worse situations doing “worse things” and feel superior.
It is easy for me to think I am here to extend a hand down to them but that is not the case.
We are all on the same level and need to be helping each other reach up to God – together – needing to humbly repent and accept his grace.
Nightlight has several different business that the women work in to provide them with job training and help them get set up in a new career.
- They do screen printing on the T-shirts that Nightlight sells to raise awareness.
- They have a baking/catering business they are starting that will teach some of the women to be professional bakers and caterers.
- They design and make jewelry and sell it in the US and at various events in Bangkok.
- They do hand beaded artwork on cloth and they make silk flowers that they sell to stores and markets in Bangkok.
I spent the day wandering from work area to work area and interacting with the women. Everywhere I went they were happy, confident, hardworking, and comfortable.
At one point in the afternoon I sat down with Jeff Dieselberg, the pastoral supervisor of Nightlight and the husband of Annie Dieselburg, the founder and CEO.
As I was talking to him I realized the thing that stood out to me the most was how comfortable the women were in that space (in the Nightlight buildings).
I could tell that they felt completely safe.
It honestly felt like interacting with people in their own home where they are most comfortable, it felt like observing a large family functioning together. There was love, laughter, and joy in every corner of the office.
I had a lot of fun photographing their offices, the work, and classes the women were participating in. But what I didn’t know was that the best part of the day was still coming.
My last stop of the day was the daycare they operate for the children of the women working there. I’ll make a little disclaimer here, I’m not really a kid person. Having said that, I had a blast playing with the kids and photographing them. As soon as you pull out a camera they all want to see it and touch it. Usually that means running the fingers that were just in their mouth all over the lens. So I spent a lot of time taking pictures and showing the kids what they looked like on the back of the camera. I spent a lot of time with them taking turns pushing the button to take photos of their friends and laughing at the results.
After a while we went outside to play and that is when it got crazy. At one point I ended up playing catch with about half the kids simultaneously. I would catch 1 ball and 6 more would bounce off of me which would lead to lots of giggles and many more balls thrown at my head. I got some good photos along the way as well but it was a great to be able to just stop and play with them for a few minutes. To see them respond to being loved and paid attention to.
I really wish I could have taken my kids there and let them play for a while.
Nightlight wanted stock photos of the red light area where they work, to use to promote their work. So after I photographed the day activities in the office I spent about 2 hours wandering around the Nana red light area in Bangkok.
Those two hours were very eye opening.
I spent a lot of time walking around the area during the day and it didn’t seem like that bad of a place. There were a few scantily dressed women sitting in the bars and restaurants along the street but it wasn’t crazy.
Honestly, during the day, it just seemed like another dirty street in a huge city.
Fast forward a few hours to 7pm just after sundown and it’s an entirely new place.
Really, I didn’t know what to expect when I started walking around in the evening. I remembered hearing about the sex industry in Bangkok years ago but had not really heard much about it since. I was shocked by the incredible diversity of the consumers that flow to this area from all over the world. I was only walking around for about 2 hours and I am quite certain that every continent but Antartica was represented.
I think the thing that surprised me even more than the geographic diversity was the diversity of age. I think I saw the entire range from 18 (probably younger in some cases) to 80 (probably older in some cases). It was a staggering display of diversity of backgrounds that all came together for a common purpose.
I want to try and describe the scene for you as there is really nothing like it in the west and really anywhere else I have been.
Asia is famous for its night markets where people come to shop after their work day is done. You can get food, clothes, household items, cosmetics and much more. If you think you need it, you can probably find it in some form.
This area is a night market. There are even similar things for sale. You can get street food, sunglasses, clothes, drinks, and fresh sliced tropical fruit. But none of these are the main attraction, they are more like peanuts and popcorn at a baseball game.
Walking down the street in the daylight I realized that you have to go up a set of steps to get into most of the bars along the street. I didn’t realize why during the day because there were very few people in the bars. After sundown, when the bars are full, I quickly realized why they are built the way they are.
At the front of each of these bars, facing the street, is a bar with stools that people can sit at and watch the happenings on the street. The bars managers line these bars with women wearing incredibly short dresses. These women sit on the bar stools next to the street. The height of the bar stools, combined with the raised construction of the building itself, puts the women and their legs close to eye level for most guys.
For all intents and purposes it is one giant peep show and you can watch it happening with different guys all night. And really this is just the beginning. There are women everywhere, you can’t walk more than 10 feet without someone offering you a great deal on a ‘massage’.
Honestly, this area is not somewhere I would choose to put myself or where I felt very comfortable, but at the same time it gave me a realistic perspective of what the women at Nightlight went though before choosing to join Nightlight and start a new life.
I needed to see it to realize and fully appreciate the change that is taking place in their lives.
It’s not something that you can easily see if you just take the tour and listen to Nightlight tell you what they do. It is something that requires a little more background to fully appreciate.
When I sat in the worship service with the women on Friday morning, watched them work at their various tasks all day, and got to play catch with their children, I saw immediately that they knew that they had value. They knew that they were loved and respected – more importantly they new that they were loved and valued by God.
While I saw all of this during the day I couldn’t fully appreciate it until I saw where they had come from.
These women are moving from being valued based on their body and a couple of acts they could perform to being valued as people, worthy of love and respect.