Since the first operation in Bangkok in 1975, Thailand has become one of the top destinations for gender confirmation surgery (GCS). But what drives people to seek trans healthcare in Thailand, and why would so many patients rather fly across the world for the procedure than do it in their home countries? In her new story for Longreads, “Finding a Path in a Broken System,” Bangkok-based visual journalist Mailee Osten-Tan explores these questions and more. She spent the past year researching and reporting this feature, speaking with 15 trans women around the world about their experiences. I asked Osten-Tan about what attracts her to a story, the challenges she faced working on this piece, and her creative approach as a visual storyteller.
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Your work spans written and multimedia features, on a range of issues in Thailand and abroad. What do you look for when you search for a project?
Other stories by Osten-Tan: a piece on leatherback turtles returning to Thailand to nest, a story about a rural village in the Loei province at odds with a goldmine, and a short film about a rape and sexual assault responder in Maine.
Growing up in a mixed-race immigrant family in a majority white area in the U.K., I have always felt like I occupied a space somewhere on the periphery — not quite part of the community around me but not completely divorced from it either. The older I become, the more I understand this to be a fundamental part of human nature; that all of us are in various ways searching to find our place in society and to feel like we belong. I think that’s why I find stories of people from marginalized communities, or those in the process of defining themselves, so compelling. Discrimination is often at its core political, but I’m more interested in how discrimination impacts lived human experiences. Wanting the acceptance of others is so universally relatable that it can be an important entry point for anti-discrimination advocacy. I also love visual journalism because it opens doors to worlds I would never otherwise interact with. For example, for Al Jazeera, I’m currently working on a photography feature about a woman cockfighting bird breeder in the north of Thailand, breaking into a very traditionally masculine sport. Read more…