After three long years of helping to build a bridge to freedom for a group of enslaved prostitutes in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, the last thing photographer Ian Flanders expected was to confront the fact that opportunity was not enough.

The arduous and precarious task of building trust and developing relationships with some of these women—who had no reason to trust anyone—had educated him in the complexity of their lives. Regardless, he had no foresight that the choice to change their lives irrevocably may have been a step too far.

How did we get here? It started because Flanders had something a lot more valuable than a gritty photographic expose of the sex-slave industry in Cambodia: he nervously handed over all his recorded photos and evidence to the NGOs and hounded them for action. On November 12th, 2014, the shacks were raided and eight women and three children were rescued, while two traffickers were charged and prosecuted for their crimes.

Unfortunately, and this is where Flanders faced his surprise: despite the opportunity to do something different, many of the women returned to the only thing they knew—their addictions and a place where the pressure to change disappeared and things made sense.

However, at the very least, the intergenerational chain has been broken. The rescued children are receiving education and support that will hopefully lead to a life of self-determination and options.

—Stephen Kanaris and Tim Anger

Editors’ note: This photo documentary series was a finalist in the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards 2015. Discover more inspiring work from all of the winners and finalists.