“You have arms like Andy,” she says touching the hair on my forearms. A chill runs through me.
I know who Andy is without knowing his name because he’s the only foreigner she has ever known. A ten-year-old shouldn’t know the things she does. Sweet, funny, kind and, like so many children her age, desperate for affection and praise from adults. But the people who were supposed to love, care for and protect her, choose to exploit her. Men in Europe, America, and Asia all took advantage of her.
Everyone in this story has their own rationale: “Child online pornography isn’t sex, it’s just acting.” “These families are my neighbours; they are poor and I am helping them earn an income.” “I am helping these children with my money. I’m making their lives better every time we chat online.” “This helps feed my brothers and sisters.”
The adults are stealing the most precious thing a child has: childhood. A childhood where they are protected by the people who love them, by the community they live in, and by humanity at large. Every adult in this story has exploited an innocent trusting child for their carnal desire and their greed for money. And the children believe they are helping their family, and that their parents love them, because a child loves his or her parents unconditionally.
In twenty years as a photographer, witnessing some of the world’s most tragic events, nothing has haunted me like the stories of children in the Philippines, an island nation that has become a world leader in child online exploitation. A plethora of factors have contributed to this epidemic including easy access to internet, vast economic disparities and a culture of child sexualization. Online child exploitation is a growing problem globally but seeing its impact on the frontline was like witnessing a nightmare come to life.
I ask her if she ever saw Andy’s face online, and she tells me, “No, the arms are all the webcam showed of him.” But, like so many child predators, he was asking these girls to strip naked and perform sexual acts by themselves and with others.
Often managed by neighbours and sometimes parents, the children would obey online requests and the pedophile would transfer money. I heard stories in which men flew all the way from Europe to meet the girls in Manilla, promising to build a house for their familes in return for sexual acts. A story of a frightened seven-year-old who was fondled and subjected to a spray of bodily fluids. Parents using their daughters to better the family’s economic status. And children now in government facilities wanting to return home to their family, feeling they have been incarcerated for their actions as opposed to having been rescued from abuse.
Children are trusting and look to their parents and elders for guidance. When sexual exploitation is normalised it no longer feels as shameful, though even children understand it isn’t right. Every one of these girls missed their parents and worried about the welfare of their siblings; they crave the love and companionship of their families. How do you explain to a child, “your parents exploited you, used you, and took advantage of you”? The scars of these actions will last a lifetime and perhaps never totally heal.
As a parent of three children, these stories strike fear into the very core of my heart and ignite a rage that has no bounds.
I was there to collect these rescued girls’ stories and document their daily lives in government-run halfway houses and child protection facilities. I answered questions about my own children, about why I married the woman I did, and if I would return to visit. The girls were desperate for one-on-one affection from adults because in large facilities it’s the one thing missing. And children need to be touched, reassured and made to feel special. I wanted to reach out to these girls, hug them and tell them it would be okay. But I couldn’t; I kept my distance.
The only foreign men these girls had ever known were watching them online with a camera, asking them to perform sexual acts, or lying next to them in a hotel room.
The female producer and camerawoman had warned me that some of the girls had been winking at me and were being overly flirtatious. During the interviews, I would leave the room because I didn’t want to hear the stories first hand, as I feared the influence I would have over the girls. My gender, my race, my profession had all been players in the exploitation of these children.
I was there for UNICEF to document the girls’ daily lives, to tell their stories, and to show the world the consequence of our collective silence.
But it didn’t change the fact that my arms were like Andy’s.
Josh Estey’s son tells his friends that his dad is “the poor people’s photographer.” Josh lives in Indonesia with his three amazing kids and has shot photos in over 50 countries. For the last 15 years, he’s been shooting them with UNICEF.