To truly combat human trafficking we must choose and use images wisely.
“We are all hungry and thirsty for concrete images.” -Salvador Dali
Google search “human trafficking” and then select Images. Now do the same for the term “sex trafficking.” Notice anything different? Not really.
And therein lies the problem.
The campaign against human trafficking has propelled itself into international conversations, in part, thanks to its brilliant use of imagery. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these images involve nearly naked young women with their mouths covered or their ankles chained to beds or their wrists wrapped in duct tape. The photos are shocking and are the types of crisis imagery used in campaigns to save diseased elephants in Thailand or help children with cleft lips in Rwanda. They work by stirring our emotions, quenching our thirst for concrete images and making us hungry to help. Unfortunately, and as it relates to the anti-slavery movement, it seems these images are also severely limiting our definition of one of the world’s most complex crimes.
“Such images are designed to pull at the heartstrings of the general public – and one could argue are very successful at doing that, generating millions of dollars – but they invariably fail to reveal and explore the complexities of many issues surrounding exploitation,” said Alastair Hilton of First Step Cambodia, an NGO dedicated to ensuring that male survivors have access to services for healing and recovery. “They essentially disguise the reality of abuse in many situations, especially where the sexual abuse of boys and young men is concerned. This ‘feminisation of victimisation’, reinforces the notion that males cannot be victims and marginalises what most male victims experience, which further renders them invisible, voiceless – and we know the consequences of this all too well.”
Missing the complexities can have disastrous consequences, such as spurring on the creation of laws in which those convicted of trafficking may have to register as sex offenders even if their crime had nothing to do with sex.
Christiaan Bosman, founder of Open Hand India, a café and textile chain that works to end human trafficking through ethical business and responsible supply chains, believes that charities operating like big brands is skewing our image of human trafficking as well.
“If for a moment the person who acts against slavery and sex trafficking did not need money from anyone I believe that even the very nature of what is reported and how it is reported would change. The public would finally get a truer glimpse into the immensity of this problem.”
The impact of money and branding has created anti-slavery organizations whereby the CEO’s are essentially wealthy rockstars. They generate large sums of money for the cause, and for themselves. In many cases, superstardom has rolled over the cause like thick fog.
Bosman echoed Hilton’s comments when he said, “Not only do these images misrepresent human trafficking by overemphasizing sex, but they’re actually distorting the sex trafficking picture as well. For example, when I speak about sex slavery very few people are informed as to how big the problem is for young, vulnerable boys and men. For a variety of reasons, it’s simply not a narrative that sells as well as the stories about girls for sale.”
Helen Sworn is the International Director & Founder of Chab Dai, a Cambodia-based group committed to addressing human trafficking through facilitation of cross-sector and multi-organization collaboration. She has studied what she calls the “stages of images” within the anti-slavery movement and she broke it down like this:
“The first stage is emergency response and it’s important to note how the imagery at this stage focuses on the individual and is shocking – dead bodies, devastated community members, traumatised individuals, etc. This is often the catalyst for public response, and, of course, donations.
“The next stage sees the shift from relief to recovery. The imagery here makes a transition to seeing hope and life beyond the trauma – of families being reunited, lives being turned around for the better, people working together, etc.”
The message here seems to be that the evolution of survivor services and even awareness campaigns within the anti-slavery sector demands a concurrent evolution of representational imagery and media.
Sworn summarized this need beautifully when she said, “We can no longer solve today’s problems with yesterday’s mindsets, images, solutions. We must challenge ourselves to broaden the discourse and framework of response if we are ever to create a more sustainable and empowered structure for the future.”
In what ways can we – as modernist poet Ezra Pound advocated – “make it new?” In what ways can we expand our collective definition of human trafficking? And how can the imagery we associate with this crime develop in such a way as to support a broader, more intricate discourse?