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  • February 18, 2014

Traveler of the Year Alison Wright Pays it Forward

Author
Alexa Keefe

Alison Wright has photographed her share of beautiful places, but her heart lies in telling the stories of people living in the shadows of where the tourists go. “As photojournalists, we were brought up to not get emotionally involved. I want to get involved. If that makes me an activist, that’s fine. I don’t care about the title. Image-making is an incredibly powerful tool,” she told me in a recent interview.

No matter where an assignment might take her, she is always on the lookout for stories that speak to her personal mission of humanitarian photography. “I like having a focus,” Wright says, “but then I always factor in time to explore something more.”

A trip to Thailand in late 2012 is a case in point. Wright was leading a group on a National Geographic-sponsored photo tour around the country. As the trip was winding down on the island of Phuket, a woman introduced herself to the group, telling them of a local photo exhibit about Burmese refugees living in Thailand. Wright, who has a deep affinity for Asia having spent many years there, was intrigued.

“I had done a number of assignments photographing Burmese refugees (along the Burmese border) but didn’t know about them in Phuket.”

It is estimated that over two million Burmese refugees live in Thailand, with a high percentage living on Phuket. Having come to the country illegally, they are ineligible for healthcare or education. This woman saved her money and sent her five-year-old daughter back to Burma to live, thinking she would have a better life with her grandparents. The little girl drowned in a lake five days after she arrived back in Burma.
It is estimated that over two million Burmese refugees live in Thailand, with a high percentage living on Phuket. Having come to the country illegally, they are ineligible for healthcare or education. This woman saved her money and sent her five-year-old daughter back to Burma to live, thinking she would have a better life with her grandparents. The little girl drowned in a lake five days after she arrived back in Burma.
Most of the Burmese are not allowed refugee status and live in abysmal conditions at Rashada Pier on Phuket. They must pay about $150 a month to these slum owners as well as monthly bribes to the police just to live here.
Most of the Burmese are not allowed refugee status and live in abysmal conditions at Rashada Pier on Phuket. They must pay about $150 a month to these slum owners as well as monthly bribes to the police just to live here.

“The next morning we were all in the lobby ready to depart for the airport and I just spontaneously decided that I needed to stay,” she recalls. “They all laughed and said ‘Now we see how a National Geographic photographer rolls,’ I was so last minute, but I do it all the time. If you see something that could be a good story, follow it. That’s how stuff unfolds.”

Wright spent the next three days learning about this community of refugees living in squalor a stone’s throw from the expensive hotels and beautiful beaches of one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations. She listened to their stories of heartbreak and hardship, marveling at their spirit and resilience. After returning to the U.S., she felt compelled to go back on her own dime a few months later to see how she could help these people trapped in a seemingly dead-end situation.

Many of the men spend a day, a week or up to a month out at sea on precarious fishing boats, earning about $200 a month, while the women work at the port or at home scaling and sorting fish. A man kisses his grandson goodbye as he’s about to leave on a ship for a few weeks.
Many of the men spend a day, a week or up to a month out at sea on precarious fishing boats, earning about $200 a month. A man kisses his grandson goodbye as he’s about to leave on a ship for a few weeks.

Men and women peel the heads of small fish to help earn a living.  One bag of about seventy pounds will bring in about 70 THB, which translates to about $2.00 a bag.
Men and women peel the heads of small fish to help earn a living. One bag of about seventy pounds will bring in about 70 THB, which translates to about $2.00 a bag.

For Wright, the mission of making a difference is deeply personal. While traveling in Laos over a decade ago, she was in a bus accident that nearly took her life. She was saved by the kindness of strangers: the men who carried her off the burning bus, the villager who sewed up her nearly severed arm with a needle and thread, the British aid worker who found her and drove her over rutted roads to the hospital, the doctor who literally held her heart in his hands.

Surviving this put her life’s work in a different focus: “On a personal level, I feel the the need to pay it forward. I can’t help but feel I am here for a reason,” she said. Wright went on to found a non-profit fund called Faces of Hope, dedicated to helping women and children worldwide. The first thing she did was to return to that village in Laos and hand-deliver sutures and other medical supplies.

The Good Shepherd, a small NGO working with the Burmese refugees, is one of the fund’s recent recipients. They are currently working to raise money for a mobile medical unit and recently started a school. Wright hopes that her photographs might also help spur area hotels to help clean up the slum, and in a larger sense, generate the kind of interest that would lead to funding for continuing the story.

The Good Shepherd, a local NGO, has set up a school for the children of Burmese migrant workers.
The Good Shepherd, a local NGO, has set up a school for the children of Burmese migrant workers.

“These are pockets of people. This is a small thing. This is not about changing a country but changing an area. It’s doable. It’s manageable,” she says.

What’s next for Wright? She is about to embark on a year-long journey around the world looking at the global empowerment of women. Her assignments will help plot the course, but she will have her eye out for good stories and serendipitous connections along the way.

Alison Wright was recently named a 2013 National Geographic Traveler of the Year for traveling with purpose. You can follow Wright on her website, on Instagram, and on Twitter.

There are 15 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Amritha
    March 3, 2014

    I have always searched for a reason to take up photography as a career and a reason to make it a passion and Alison Wright is one among those who really continues to inspire people like me

  2. marcus robertson
    March 2, 2014

    It is more blessed to give than to receive. She is laying up treasure in heaven. No one can take that from her.

  3. Jaicel
    February 26, 2014

    I am always fascinated by a small gesture of kindness by people. More of this Alison Wright!

  4. Aviott John
    February 23, 2014

    Passion is an inseparable component of compassion and Alison has loads of both.

  5. José Rui Lira
    February 23, 2014

    Fantastic work.
    She captures the dignity of persons in its environment.

  6. Tamara Owens
    February 23, 2014

    The human spirit will endure, even in times of extreme hardship. I love the story you are telling.

  7. Rodolfo Kintanar
    February 23, 2014

    The attitude of the viewer on seeing a picture can make a comment Political or Romantic…and the mood for the moment will either elicit like or dislike or apathy for what is presented.

  8. Bill Murray
    February 23, 2014

    I also find it difficult to understand the comments of those who lack any caring or empathy for those less fortunate..

  9. Damaso Santana
    February 22, 2014

    Great work!
    To the other writer, most human suffering is Political .

  10. Harshita Jaiswal
    February 21, 2014

    The photographer brings out the emotions of the people. Really beautiful at the same time saddening pictures.

  11. maria cristina irurita
    February 20, 2014

    All images are political…

  12. carmela caseria
    February 20, 2014

    Bravissima Alison ,congratulazione.
    Sono onorata averti incontrata.

  13. Raul Cancela
    February 19, 2014

    The human and social sense this one very over the photographic art. Congratulations.

  14. Mehnaaz
    February 19, 2014

    Such a big world, so many people, yet such little empathy. Its so easy to feel sad for the Burmese refugees and their likes but so difficult to be non-judgmental of those abusing their plight. Wonderful work, Alison! God Bless!

  15. viola
    February 18, 2014

    amazing work!
    wish to do this as well!

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