"Seeing the Unseen" is a long-term documentary project that documents, through portraiture and real time photo capture, the experience of surviving human trafficking and the journey to healing and recovery. The project is photographed using the documentary form in the digital photography medium and presents as 11x14 digital prints.
According to the United Nations, human trafficking is on the rise and it is more “horrific” than ever. Despite increasing efforts and a global movement to raise awareness about the atrocities of human trafficking, many people remain unaware that modern day slavery persists in alarming numbers.
The goal of this project is to create a platform for survivors to amplify their voices while using photography as tool for inclusive expression. It is a joined collaboration with the people I photograph and puts the people and their stories first then the photography comes later. The second project goal is to create awareness, provoke discussions, and inspire action to eradicate this crime. By using photography to bring awareness and attention to different forms of trafficking, I hope to empower survivors, engage with my audience to challenge common myths about human trafficking, and foster a dialogue about the root causes.
Bearing witness to countless heartbreaking stories of human trafficking during my years as a photographer has only increased my desire to share these inconvenient truths and inspire social change.
To date, I’ve worked on forced marriage and domestic servitude in collaboration with HAART Kenya, sex trafficking in the United States (specifically in New York City and Maine), organ trafficking of persons with albinism in Tanzania, and the plight of children who are sold into domestic servitude and the cybersex trade in the Philippines. As part of my work to document the strength and resilience of trafficking survivors, I am currently partnering with a Ugandan organization that offers therapeutic support to former child soldiers, sex slaves, and other vulnerable children. Child soldiers and human trafficking are inextricably linked, though this too often goes unrecognized.
Cary, an American sex trafficking survivor, as she reflects on her experience, way it has impacted her as a mother, and the challenges of reintegration into society. Trafficked into ‘the life’ at just 23 years old, Cary spent the next 7 years isolated, beaten, drugged, and moved between states, forced to sell herself night after night to meet the quotas set by her pimps. Despite enduring the most difficult of circumstances, Cary emerged from the horrors of trafficking strong and determined to rewrite her story.
Pendo, teenage girl from Tanzania who was brutally attacked for having albinism, was brought to the Dare to Dream Home in New York City on a goodwill mission. Pendo lives in constant fear of attack, dismemberment, and death. She is shunned, hunted, and feared by others. She is among the nearly 7,000 Tanzanians with albinism, a hereditary condition that results in a lack of pigmentation in skin, hair, and eyes. In Tanzania, people with albinism are persecuted because of their lack of color. The regions of Shinyanga and Mwanza are particularly dangerous for those with albinism. Here, witchdoctors promote a belief in the potential magic and superstitious properties of albino body parts, and children with albinism are murdered so their skin, hair, and appendages can be used to make charms and potions believed to bring wealth, power, and good luck
Shandra Woworuntu looking up the stairwell to an illegal sex brothel on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens on June 13, 2019. Shandra was a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and survivor of sex trafficking and domestic violence. She was born in Indonesia, and in 2001 she travelled to the USA expecting a job in the hospitality industry but was instead SOLD into the sex industry under threat and violence. She eventually escaped her captors and helped convict her traffickers.
Fatoumata came to the US from Burkina Faso to work as a nanny for the family of a diplomat, but instead was forced to work 7 days a week with no salary for 5 years. One day she decided to escape. In that moment she felt determined never to return. Fatou was frightened, as she didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak English, thankfully she was able to connect with a non-profit working to assist human trafficking survivors. In 2018, Fatou successfully completed a Culinary Arts Program, where she learned to cook and to acquire management skills. “I want to share my story to help others understand that human trafficking is happening all around you.”
Patricia was born in Honduras. At age 3, she and her mother moved to the United States. She grew up in group homes and describes her upbringing as, “abusive and I never felt wanted as a child.” At 18, Patricia was lured by a man on the promise of a stable job but was sexually exploited instead. In August 2017, she began her healing and in March of this year, Patricia became one of four female transitional home residents to participate in the program for survivors of gender-based violence, specifically human trafficking.
“Before arriving in the US, I dreamed of learning English, attending college, and integrating into American culture. But unfortunately, my husband and his family had different plans for me. Instead, I was forced to cook and clean for him and his family. I felt trapped. I could speak very little English, and had a longing to better myself through a college education. I was lucky to find a caseworker who understood my situation. I now have a home, a job, and am encouraged to enroll in college to study social work. I want to study social work because I know there are many women entrapped in forced marriage, like I was, who do not know their rights. I want to be able to help them be free. No one should live a life without dignity and personal freedom.” Mousome is 22. At 19, abiding by perceived cultural and religious norms Mou was sent to the US by her family from Bangladesh to get married but soon found herself working for her husband’s family under subtle psychological pressure.
The UN views forced marriage as a form of human rights abuse, since it violates the principle of the freedom and autonomy of individuals. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that a person's right to choose a spouse and enter freely into marriage is central to his/her life and dignity and his/her equality as a human being.
Shirley, teenage girl from Uganda, was trafficked by someone she thought was a friend. Desperate to find work, she traveled with this friend on the promise of a job working as a housekeeper. 'I remember feeling excited to interview and potentially start a new job when I boarded a bus. When I arrived, I was forced to work as a sex worker.' The woman who had offered her the job drove her to a house surrounded by guards carrying guns and dogs ensured she and other woman like her could not escape. One year later she was able to escape when a male client helped her.
Trafficking survivor washing dishes after dinner in the safety of an all-girls HAART Kenya transitional home in Nairobi, Kenya on June 10, 2017. As the fastest growing criminal industry, human trafficking is present in every country; resulting in an estimated 40 million victims worldwide. While these individuals may sometimes be kept behind locked doors, they are more often hidden right in front of us. For example, they may be forced into exploitation at construction sites, restaurants, elder care centers, nail salons, agricultural fields, massage parlors, and hotels – even in private homes. Anyone could potentially encounter a possible human trafficking situation, although it may not be obvious.
Survivor of human trafficking peers out her window in Kibera, Kenya on June 12, 2017. Traffickers’ use of coercion – such as threats of arrest, deportation, or harm to the victim or a family member – is so powerful that even if you reach out to victims, they may be too fearful to respond or acknowledge what is happening. In cases where traffickers use deception and fraud as tactics, victims may not even be aware of the full scope of what is happening to them. Knowing the indicators of human trafficking can help you recognize trafficking, how to respond safely, and most important, how to report it.
Florence reads on her assigned bed at a shelter for human trafficking survivors outside Manila, Philippines, September 2019. She says reading is therapeutic for her, as it keeps her mind off of things, she wishes she could forget about. Florence is a survivor of cybersex trafficking. After being exploited by a family member at age 10, she says she finally feels safe but still has reoccurring nightmares.
All but a few cybersex trafficking cases involve children being abused by relatives or family friends, and half of the victims are aged 12 or younger, stated aid organization, Voice of the Free representative Roland Pacis, (Sept. 2019).
Barbara, a survivor of cybersex trafficking, looks out her bedroom window at a shelter in Manila, Philippines, Sept. 2019. Barbara has no desire to go home to her parents — at least not yet. The 15-year-old Filipina has lived in a shelter since being rescued three years ago from a neighbor who forced her to perform sexual acts in front of a webcam for overseas predators. She was rescued in March 2016 by the City Social Welfare and Development and other law enforcement agencies. Barbara filed legal charges against her trafficker, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in January 2018.
She is one of hundreds of girls in the care of charities after being saved from cybersex trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery that saw 60,000 reports in the Philippines in 2018 alone, as stated in Philippines cybersex crackdown sparks concern over care for child victims, (REUTERS, 2019).
Ira, a 14-year-old child domestic worker (CDW) finds herself in an emotional state of distress at the Manila Halfway Shelter as she awaits psychological services in Manila, Philippines on Sept. 25, 2019. She was rescued by the City Social Welfare Development Office (CSWDO). Like many CDWs, she had no work contract, benefits, or access to health services. Throughout her ordeal, Ira was verbally, physically, and sexually abused. CDWs live in perpetuating invisibility, are expected to do adult work, suffer extreme physical, verbal and sometimes sexual abuse. As stated in An In-Depth Study for a Time-Bound Program Targeting Child Domestic Workers in the Philippines, (ILO-IPEC Manila, 2002).