“I don’t do art,” says photo-journalist George Nickels, despite his photos appearing in several international exhibitions where his stark documentary-style photography has been critiqued as imbued with artistic sensibility.
And while George mostly photographs causes that he’s passionate about, he eschews the term activist, claiming to be best defined as a photojournalist with commitment to humanitarian causes.
The cause that his work is most associated with is slavery and human trafficking, and in April some of his work on that topic was exhibited at the Angkor Miracle Hotel in Siem Reap during a conference called the ‘Cross-Border Cooperation on Labour Migration and Human Trafficking between Cambodia and Thailand.’
“It was the right place for my photos,” he says, “Over 200 people from the right sector were there, including a lot of VIPs, a lot of bigwigs.”
At the moment he’s working again with Jon F Morgan’s Lake Clinic Cambodia on another cause that stirs his conscience – poverty and lack of sanitation on Tonle Sap.
“The Lake Clinic Cambodia provides much-needed healthcare to remote isolated communities living on Southeast Asia’s largest lake, the mighty Tonle Sap,” George says.
“Poverty and illness are clearly evident in the communities of the Tonle Sap, and residents survive predominantly on what the lake has to offer.
“A lack of fresh drinking water and basic sanitation are major factors of disease within these floating communities, and over 10,000 children die each year in Cambodia as a result.
“I have been photographing isolated communities on the lake for the last six years and the last time I that I worked alongside the clinic team I was working on a three-day assignment for Vice.
“I remember a 12-year-old girl who had been left to care for a nine-month-old baby for months. Her father was an abusive alcoholic who beat her and her mother, and he was rarely on the lake. Her mother could not handle the beatings so she chose to leave her baby with her 12-year-old little girl to seek work as a prostitute in Siem Reap. I feel obliged to document these situations and bring light onto an otherwise shadowed world.”
George, an English-expat, began to pursue a career in photo journalism as part of a change-of-life travel journey.
“I come from the English midlands, where I was a site manager in construction,” he says. “When my mother died I just went travelling and we lived in Australia for a year, knowing that we were not going back to England.”
In Australia, he began selling photos, and the news site Vice began running his stories.
“I always wanted to be a photo journalist,” he says, “And in Australia I realised I could make money.”
Eight years ago, in 2011, he upped stakes again and moved to Siem Reap.
“I came here on a holiday for a month, fell in love with the place and decided I wanted to settle down here for a bit,” he says. “It’s a good base as a photo journalist with a lot of scope for stories.”
George began covering human trafficking – the cause that concerns him most – in 2014, after speaking to a friend whose brother had been trafficked onto a Thai fishing vessel.
He researched the topic via organizations like GVC, an Italian NGO, and realized the full scope of the problem.
“The sheer amount of people who are trafficked into slavery is alarming, and the stories that I have heard whilst interviewing and photographing people are horrifying,” he says.
“Stories of murder and mock executions whilst men are enslaved on Thai fishing vessels. Stories of the broken families that are left behind with no idea of where their loved ones are or whether they will ever be reunited again, and the post-traumatic stress that affects virtually every formerly trafficked and enslaved man or woman.
“I interviewed a woman whose husband had been missing for years, and she told me that she knew that there were risks involved in my husband trying to find work in Thailand, but they had a new-born baby and were struggling to survive on the money that he earned as a construction worker in Cambodia.
“On another occasion a formerly trafficked and enslaved fisherman told me that when he got tired, they gave him a powder to dissolve in water and drink. ‘I threw it away the first time they gave it to me and the second time, but when they saw I hadn’t taken it the third time, they beat me,’ the man said. ‘I knew if I didn’t take the powder, they’d kill me. I don’t know what it was, but when I took it, my energy came back and I didn’t need to eat any rice’.”
The man said that the food and drugs – probably amphetamines – weren’t enough to sustain all those on board and the crew lost patience with a Laotian man who was too ill to work.
The man told George, “They threw him overboard as an example to the rest of us. I was there for a month and I thought I’d die there. They said all the Cambodians on the boat would die.”
George has also worked on other causes, such as landmine detection and the use of mine detection dogs and rats.
But now, after years of covering his favourite causes, he’s hoping to put the best of his work between the covers of a book.
“I would love to publish a book of my work,” he says. “However finding a publisher willing to fund it is a very difficult task.”