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How an AP photographer captured labor abuses in Southeast Asia

Most people don’t think of slavery as a 21st century problem.

But between 2013 and 2015, a group of Associated Press reporters conducted a major investigation into the use of slave labor in the Thai fishing industry.  The resulting reporting garnered the 2016 Pulitzer prize in public service, and has spurred efforts to halt human trafficking from Myanmar and Cambodia to the Thai fishing industry.

Part of what set the AP’s reporting apart was that its journalists not only managed to track Thai boats using slaves to distant Indonesian islands, but AP photographer Dita Alangkara was able to capture images of slave laborers held in cages–and later, their dramatic rescue by the Indonesian government.

Acting on a tip about labor abuses, in November 2014 Alangkara and AP reporters including Margie Mason, a Jakarata-based writer, took a boat to the sparsely-populated Indonesian island of Benjina. Located in the Arafura Sea, the small island was home to the compound of a Thai fishing company named Pusaka Benjina Resources – and little else.  

Since AP guidelines prevented them from going undercover, they had “to come as reporters and introduce ourselves as reporters,” Alangkara says, in an interview with Global Journalist. “We met the site manager and we talked with him in his office.”

To their surprise, he granted them access to the fishing company’s facilities.  “He said ‘there’s nothing wrong going on in this company…We asked him if we could look around and shoot on the dock and he said ‘please do’,” says Alangkara. “He felt powerful.”

In this Nov. 22, 2014 photo, workers in Benjina, Indonesia, load fish onto a cargo ship bound for Thailand. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

In this Nov. 22, 2014 photo, workers in Benjina, Indonesia, load fish onto a cargo ship bound for Thailand. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

After photographing boats loading and unloading fish from the dock, Alangkara and his colleagues spotted a barred cell on the compound where eight fishermen were held captive.  It was just what they had been looking for. 

With security guards from the fishing company nearby, Alangkara discretely began taking pictures with his camera from a distance. Then, using his iPhone, Alangkara was able to quietly approach the cell and snap shots of the prisoners from close range – even as security guards stood nearby. “It involved some hide and seek,” he says. “It was quite intense.”

The conditions for the slave laborers were deplorable. The boats where the mainly Burmese men worked were “totally filthy, with cockroaches everywhere,” Alangkara says.

Trapped on an island in a foreign land or on boats far from home and forced to work up to 20 hours a day, Benjina’s slave laborers had little hope of escape. “Some of them had never been on boats before; many of them can’t swim,” he says.  “If they did even the smallest mistake, they got beaten and tortured by the captain.”

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The AP story documenting the abuses on Benjina was published on March 25, 2015, and made an immediate impact. On April 2, 2015, officials from Indonesia’s fishery ministry accompanied by a team from the AP arrived in Benjina, this time escorted by a warship.

That evening, Alangkara and one of his video colleagues helped sneak five slaves from one of the fishing boats moored at Benjina. They took them to a small island off Benjina to interview them, safe from the fishing company’s security guards.

“They were really scared,” Alangkara says. “You could see from their gestures that they were jittery. If people at the company had caught them talking to the media, I don’t know what would have happened to them…We didn’t know that they would get rescued the next day.”

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Indeed, Indonesian fisheries officials began interviewing the slaves the following day, and the scale of the human rights abuses soon became evident. It was then the Indonesian authorities decided their investigation would become a rescue operation.

As Alangkara stood by, Indonesian officials gathered the laborers and asked them if they wanted to go back to their home countries.

Burmese fishermen raise their hands as they are asked who among them wants to go home at the compound of Pusaka Benjina Resources in Benjina, Indonesia, Friday, April 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Burmese fishermen raise their hands as they are asked who among them wants to go home at the compound of Pusaka Benjina Resources in Benjina, Indonesia, April 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

“For me the most meaningful picture is the picture of the fishermen raising their hands when they were asked ‘Who among you wants to go home?’ and they all raised their hands,” Alangkara says.

For Margie Mason, Alangkara’s picture of two men hugging after being rescued is among the most memorable. “You can see on their faces it is just this total joy, there’s no other way to describe it,” Mason says. “Dita was very invested in the story and in this work, and I think it shows in the images.”

Burmese fishermen hug each other as they wait for their departure to leave the compound of Pusaka Benjina Resources fishing company in Benjina, Indonesia, April 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Burmese fishermen hug each other as they wait for their departure to leave the compound of Pusaka Benjina Resources fishing company in Benjina, Indonesia, April 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

“This is the first time in my life that I feel useful,” Alangkara says. “That I have contributed something that helped change people’s lives.”

Among those saved were the five men they had interviewed in secrecy the evening before the rescue. “They sat there looking at me, they hugged me, shook my hand, and that is priceless, it is just amazing,” Alangkara says. “To see them happy, it feels good…It’s more important than any award.”

In total, the AP’s efforts helped authorities in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to rescue 2,000 slaves.

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