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Vannak Anan Prum:

A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery

In 2005, former Cambodian soldier and monk Vannak Anan Prum (self-portrait above), newly married and expecting his first child, found himself unable to afford the hospital bill for his wife. Leaving his village on the promise of well-paid work from a bogus ‘job agent’, Prum was relocated to Thailand, where human-smuggling syndicates sold him to a Thai fishing boat owner, a common occurrence among unscrupulous captains facing chronic shortages of able-bodied seamen.

Held captive for the next three years and seven months, Prum endured dangerous working conditions and inhumane treatment at sea, granted as little as three hours’ sleep per night and two meals a day of cold rice. The crew barely survived, supplementing their diet with coffee, cigarettes and in some cases an addictive, destructive amphetamine. Their backbreaking labour was unpaid, their only currency seahorses caught up in the nets and dried, which they would trade with workers on the fishing boat’s supply ship, for use as a bone strengthener in Chinese medicine.

Ten men would share one bucket of precious fresh water to wash themselves in. Taking a shit one day while suspended over the stern in a rope harness, Prum was almost bitten by a shark. Worse still, men unable to work were beaten or killed. Prum saw one crew member decapitated and his body thrown overboard. Eventually he escaped, swimming ashore one night when the boat anchored close enough to the Malaysian coast, but his troubles did not end here.

Arrested as an illegal immigrant, Prum hoped the police would deport him back to Cambodia. Instead they sold him to a palm oil plantation, where he was forced to work for four months, his only pay a packet of cigarettes. After being injured in a fight with fellow workers and hospitalised for a month, Prum was imprisoned for eight months. Word reached a friend’s mother, who contacted a Cambodian human rights organisation.

On 5 May 2010, five years after his abduction, Prum finally returned home, and finally met his daughter. Prum wanted to alert others and raise awareness about this human trafficking, so he began recording his experiences in words and pictures. A self-taught artist, he had drawn in the dirt as a boy. Raised amid the scarcity of the Cambodian civil war, he used dried clay on wooden boards, before graduating to pencil on paper, gifts from a Vietnamese soldier. Prum developed his draughtsmanship further by tattooing shipmates during his years of forced labour.

The result is the 256-page graphic memoir The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea: A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery from Seven Stories Press, in collaboration with Australian brother-and-sister filmmaking team Jocelyn and Ben Pederick, who, like the artist, are based in Phnom Penh. Prum hand-colours his wide half-page panels, dividing several in two with a single, often diagonal line and placing his first-person-narrative captions on the bottom left.

His vivid testimony serves as an urgent warning about the largely undocumented maritime trade in slave labour. Which, as his new Strip for ArtReview Asia magazine (below) shows, has never left his memories. His book also features a Foreword by Anne Elizabeth Moore, an Introduction by Minky Worden, and an Afterword by Kevin Bales.

Several of his original artworks from this book are on display in the touring exhibition Mangasia: Wonderlands of Asian Comics, curated by Paul Gravett for The Barbican Centre.

Posted: August 27, 2018

This profile originally appeared in ArtReview Asia magazine.

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The Dead Eye & The Deep Blue Sea:
A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery
by Vannak Anan Prum
(Seven Stories Press)