Last night I received a message from a schoolmate, who wasn't sure if this was "a humanitarian project, a commercial project, or a travel project". I can understand his confusion: it's a little of each, and yet something entirely different.
Finding M was the inspiration for the project, and the part that means the most to me personally, and it will be wonderful if I can help raise awareness of the issue of human trafficking. Sharing my stories and photographs is another goal, and I am thrilled to be returning to Asia, to see the people and places I've known.
Yet the essence of the project is something else: it's a matter of communication between two very different worlds that share the same planet, yet have so very little understanding of one another, and so very few points of meaningful contact. Even amongst those Westerners who do visit Asia, the vast majority return with little idea of what life truly means to the people who live there, in either a spiritual or practical sense.
As someone who has travelled extensively through southern Asia and made a real effort to see beyond the superficial, and as someone who is able to communicate effectively via words and images, I'd like to build a bridge between those two worlds, to bring us all a little closer. There's too much misunderstanding in this world, and there's no other way to overcome it than by seeing and speaking to each other.
Four billion people - the majority of the world's population - live in Asia. That number is a meaningless statistic until you're able to see the faces of the people who live there, and hear what they have to say.
My schoolmate suggested more of a focus on the humanitarian aspect of the project: not merely finding the people in the photographs, but helping them. While it's true that many parts of Asia are stricken with poverty on a scale unimaginable in the West, we tend to oversimplify East-West relations along these lines. We consider ourselves as being in a somewhat superior position to much of Asia, thanks to the wealth we have in the West.
In other ways, however, our own societies are also very poor: we have a poverty of the culture and spirituality which many Eastern societies have kept intact. Despite the hardships of life in Asia, I've seen more happiness and contentment there than anywhere else in the world.
We cling to the idea that we need to help Asian societies develop along the same lines as our own, when in fact we have much to learn from each other. When I refer to my time in Asia as a life-changing experience, this is what I'm referring to, and this is what I'd like to share with you. It's something that goes beyond pictures and coffee-table books. It's something less tangible, something deeper: if I succeed in this project, I'll change the way you see your world.
In that sense, it is a humanitarian project, but the lives I want to change are yours.