How Not to Portray Trafficking

Each year, we host an art show of photography created in the Vision for Empowerment workshop series, which we have offered to women in Calcutta for the past 4 years.  The purpose of the workshops, taught by international photographer Sarah Annay, is both therapeutic self-expression and to explore careers in photography, an overwhelmingly male-dominated field in India.  

The beautiful and uplifting images the women capture each year through their photography are a sharp contrast to the images we often see about human trafficking and other gender violence issues. The way survivors and the issue are portrayed is often counterproductive , violating the privacy of survivors, making the problem seem hopeless, or perpetuating violence.

Joe Schmidt, CEO of the abolition research and advocacy organization Walk Free, explains it this way: “In recent years, the way the anti-slavery movement is portrayedvisually in the media and online is part of the problem.  It is dark, sensationalized, and often includes images that are violent, sexualized, even creepy, like people with bar codes, or naked young women with bruises and bloodied. 

When we use images like these to present the issue, we are in a way perpetuating the violence and sexualization of women and children.  Rather than inspire action and advocacy, it horrifies and upsets people, making them not want to think about the issue.  It is a reaction of being repulsed… an immediate desire to look away and remove these horrendous images from their world view.  It sure doesn’t seem like the ideal way to inspire a movement!”

Privacy is another serious concern.  In the US, we would never show online a picture of a child victim of sexual abuse, or of any rape victim unless she gave specific consent and was choosing to speak out as an advocate.  It would be illegal and immoral to do so.  So why is it considered acceptable to share such images of trafficking victims from other countries, sometimes in ways that violate their privacy and could expose them to social stigma or danger?  Shock tactics may be good for getting attention and support for your cause, but at what cost?

At Her Future Coalition, we have made the commitment to never show identifiable or individual pictures of child survivors on our website, and we will never identify an individual of any age in a photo as a human trafficking survivor.  We don’t ask the girls to share their story publicly to ‘raise awareness’.  They want to move forward, away from that horror.   Instead, we focus on positive images of women who have overcome tremendous obstacles, and to elevate them in every way, including visually.  

Often, pictures on websites or in news articles show people in a moment of real crisis or degradation, looking utterly miserable and pathetic.  No one wants to be portrayed that way.  No one wants to be an object of pity.  

Let’s find other, more respectful and constructive ways to engage people in this movement.  Yes, human trafficking is appalling, violent and contrary to the inherent worth of each human being.   But it is far from a hopeless problem.  There are many solutions and approaches that are working.  One place to start would be to give the power back to survivors to craft their own narratives and imagery in ways that showcase their potential rather than the abuse. 

The Vision for Empowerment Workshops will be offered again in Jan. 2018 in Calcutta India.  You can support the effort by purchasing one of these beautiful prints or a fine art photo book online (100% of purchase price goes to the project).