Somaly Mam is radiant, a light, a fire, a flame. She blazes a path, one woman set to change the course of the world so long as she walks the earth. Orphaned at a young age then sold into a brothel in Cambodia around age 12, Somaly Mam knows the truth about the slave trade. She not only escaped, but has liberated thousands of women and children from sexual slavery and aided tens of thousands more in having a voice and a choice in their life. She risks her life for the lives of others. To listen to her story, and to hear the stories of the women and girls she has assisted, is a lesson in honor, humility, and humanity.
Few speak on the sale of human beings, the outcomes of these transactions too illicit for polite company. But Somaly speaks, and when she does, people listen. Eyes are opened. Policies begin to change. But most of all, lives are saved. The slave trade runs rampant, crossing borders everywhere from New York City to Phnom Penh. It’s an international issue, but it does not receive the attention that it deserves. Yet when people meet Somaly, they feel charged to take action.
Price Arana, CEO of Press Cabinet, a Los Angeles-based branding and advertising agency, first met Somaly Mam in the fall of 2012, at a private gathering of friends organized by Angella Nazarian. As Nazarian recounts, “For the past few years I have been doing in depth research on women who have been the trailblazers—women who have dared to have a bold vision for change and have impacted their field in the most meaningful way. Somaly Mam has single-handedly brought sex trafficking on a global platform and has saved thousands of girls from sexual slavery. I was so touched by Somaly’s own life and work that I dedicated a chapter on Somaly’s life and work in my book, Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World [which was previously featured in Le Journal’s Book Review No. 39.]
“What I have learned from Somaly’s work is that one person can be more powerful than the biggest organizations. With this thought in mind, my partner, Beth Friedman, and I founded a women’s initiative that brings together Los Angeles’ finest women leaders to collaborate on finding innovative ideas and solutions to a variety of issues at hand. We invited Somaly Mam to be the featured speaker for our first Women A.R.E. Salon in January 2013.”
After meeting Somaly and listening to her speak, Price Arana felt the call to action. She understood that the best way to give was of her talents and resources, and she made it a point to follow through. “It’s really important to know that you can make a difference. Know what you can do that can effect change and then do it. I knew I could produce a powerful pro-bono campaign to reach millions of people. After meeting Somaly, I called Douglas and Francoise Kirkland. We met for cappuccino and scones, and after telling them I wanted to create a campaign Douglas asked, “Can we shoot it?’”
Somaly Mam has this effect. She brings people together in solidarity, in humanity, and in some understanding of what is a horrific crime, the raw reality of slavery today. Somaly Mam not only brings attention to crime, she has created solutions for the women and children she saves. With a multilateral approach, she and her Foundation engage with governments, corporations, and individuals in the fight to eradicate slavery, to liberate its victims, and to rehabilitate the women and girls brutalized by the practices of the trade. It is modern day horror, a kind of apocalypse when you consider an estimated 20 million people are enslaved today. The stories are too graphic for casual reference, each filled with private anguish that no one should suffer, and were it not for people committed to bringing these stories to light, we would never hear them at all.
We come together to share in the fight, each giving what we have. Some give money, some give service, and together we begin to fill in the blanks. A matter so profound, so personal, and so global has damning implications on the government’s commitment to caring for its citizen. To follow Somaly Mam on Facebook is to get a powerful glimpse into her world. She is tireless, limitless, matchless, and she lifts up and loves these women who have been to hell and back.
The scary part is: this is always happening. Every two minutes, another child is sold. To understand slavery is to be humbled in the grace that we walk free while every day and night, millions on the earth suffer this fate.
An artist like Kirkland is exquisitely sensitive to this force as he recalls the session they shared. “With camera in hands, I asked Somaly Mam as I was starting to photograph her: ‘Do you have trouble sleeping?’ and she quietly nodded, suggesting her haunting past. Her presence moved me enormously and when she told me she felt I was her father I just wrapped my arms around her and felt like protecting her and hoped I might channel some of her father to her.”
Somaly felt the kinship as well, sharing her memory of their time spent together. “To meet Douglas and Francoise felt like reuniting with old friends. Douglas was warm, caring, easy, confident, and an incredibly talented photographer–proven to us when he opened the photos on his computer immediately and they were breathtaking. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Douglas, and will never forget it.”
It is thanks to Price Arana that we have this opportunity to speak, to share, to tell, to look, to learn, to observe with the reverent silence a photograph can comment.
The portrait of Somaly Mam, photographed by Douglas Kirkland, will debut in the April 29 edition of Time Magazine as part of Press Cabinet-produced P.S.A.
Arana observes, “Her power to forgive is extraordinary. To survive her ordeal and then to smile, to go back to rescue her girls and live through their stories, and hear her say she believes in the power of love. What a gift she is to this world. Somaly has changed the course of my life. If she can do this, I know there is nothing I cannot do.”