Photograph by Alison Wright
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This woman hired someone to bring her and her children over the Thai/Burmese border but he took her money and deserted her. She is now raising eight children in the refugee camp, with no opportunity for them to have healthcare or education. She realizes that she has no way that she will ever make it back to her native country.
Photograph by Alison Wright

Traveler of the Year Alison Wright Pays it Forward

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.”

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.