Too poor to pay his pregnant wife's hospital bill, Vannak Anan Prum left his Cambodian village to seek work in Thailand. Men who appeared to be employers on a fishing vessel promised to return him home after a few months at sea, but instead Vannak was held hostage on the vessel for four years of hard labor. Amid violence and cruelty, including frequent beheadings, Vannak survived in large part by honing his ability to tattoo his shipmates, a skill he possessed despite never having been trained in art or having access to art supplies while growing up.
To escape, Vannak and a friend jumped into the water and, hugging empty fish-sauce containers. At the harbor, they were taken into a police station . . . then sold by their rescuers to work on a plantation. Vannak was kept as a laborer for more than a year before an NGO could secure his return to Cambodia. After five years away, Vannak was finally reunited with his family.
Vannak documented his ordeal in raw, colorful, detailed illustrations, first created because he believed that without them no one would believe his story. Indeed, very little is known about what happens to the men and boys who end up working on fishing boats in Asia, and these images are some of the first records. In regional Cambodia, many families still wait for men who have disappeared across the Thai border and out to sea. The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea is a testament to the lives of these many fishermen trapped on boats in the Indian Ocean.
Vannak Anan Prum is a Cambodian survivor of human trafficking. While looking for work on the Thai-Cambodian border, he was detained as a slave on a fishing boat, enduring hard labor and hellish treatment for four grueling years. After making his escape by literally jumping ship, Vannak was sold by his ostensible rescuers on the Malaysian coast to a plantation owner and police official. After another year of hard labor and imprisonment, a human rights organization helped him finally return to his family.
At home in Cambodia, he drew pictures of what he remembered to explain his whereabouts during the course of his years as a modern-day slave. Though never formally educated or trained in art, Vannak has loved drawing since childhoodfrom figures traced in the dirt, to tattoos etched into skin, to these pencil and ink illustrations detailing his personal odyssey.
In 2012 Prum was given a State Department Human Rights Defender Award, presented to him directly by then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.