March 3, 2012

Human Trafficking Photo Story

Among other busy nothings, the past fortnight I have been working on the Storytellers scholarship for the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg.  :-)  I don't think I've let the blogosphere know yet, but I've been accepted!  So, Lord willing, I will be attending the Art Institute next semester and for the next 3 years.  I'll be pursuing a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Digital Photography.  *So exciting!*  In preparation for that I'm applying for scholarships.  Everything helps. Can I hear an amen from all my high school senior readers?  I thought so. :-)

The Storytellers Competition asks you to tell a story with 6 photos.   Any story goes, but I didn't want to do something trivial.  If you're going to put a lot of time, effort, and prayer into a project I want it to be something that actually matters.  I wanted to change something.  

Over the last few months I have heard more and more about human trafficking.  It started when I had to study underground economies for my ECOFIN committee at Model UN.  I read up on just about everything that is part of the underground economy and that includes human trafficking.  Human trafficking is "the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of reproductive slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, and forced labor." It is slavery.  What really tugged at my heart was the sex trade aspect of human trafficking.  I dug into it deeper and couldn't believe what was going on.  Girls as young as my little sister are being kidnapped and forced to be prostitutes!  And the worst part?  This isn't just Least Developed Countries and Developing Countries, this is ubiquitous.  It is happening in YOUR country, YOUR state, and more likely than not YOUR town.  Slavery is alive and well in the United States of America and we don't know it, or worse, don't care.  So my goal with this photo story is to make you aware of what is going on, and just perhaps inspire you to help.  

The following is the essay I submitted with my work to explain the story.  I've removed my technical explanation of how and why I took the photos the way I did.


There are more human slaves in the world today than there every have been in the history of the world.  Human trafficking and specifically the sex trade is a huge issue in the United States and I feel strongly that we have a responsibility to do something about it.  Girls are being kidnapped everyday and prostituted in every city across the United States.  Slavery is alive and well.  

My first photo begins the contrast from the happy perfect world of one busy girl and the darkness of the traffickers world.  I used the corner of the building and the enhanced shadows of the alley to portray this disparity.  The girl is not very different than I. She is walking along hurriedly, happily unsuspecting, and talking on her phone with friends. Traffickers look for opportunities like this.  They have been waiting.

The second image in this series shows the abduction.  Our girl is confused and scared.  She remains the focus, but the ominous guys shadow the foreground and introduce the element of threat.  The knife’s presence is what initially keeps the girl quiet.  She will regret that decision later, no matter what the pain would have been.  Girls are kept from running away or making noises by threats on their and their families lives.  They are raped, abused, drugged, and prostituted every moment of their now miserable existence.  

Image three shows the girl being forced to put makeup on but the meaning is much deeper.  She is being forced to make herself up, look seductive, and sleep with as many men as possible.  In this image her spirit has not yet been broken, and despite the make up, the clothes, the gun, and the drugs on the table she is still fighting and angry.  She is still trying to resist.  Day after day of abuse and prostitution breaks down the girl and she starts to lose hope and faith in humankind.  She feels like she is trapped in a cage with no way out.  

Image four shows glass as the barrier between her and the outside world.  She is so close, yet so far.  She lives around us everyday and yet we don’t see her.  She has been crying and starts to feel emotional claustrophobia.  She cannot get out; she will never get out.  She is the only thing in the photo of significance so the negative space draws you to her eyes and tear stained face.  She wants to get out and has probably been pounding on the glass to no avail.  In the photo she is physically and emotionally exhausted.  All she wants is help--to get out.

Image five is the darkest saddest photo of the story.  Our character has given up hope.  She is absolutely alone in the world.  Even though she is forced to have sex with forty guys a night she is utterly alone.  Image five is meant to show the pain, isolation, and hopelessness of a girl trapped in the sex trade.  No one knows that she is sold like meat, and those who do don’t care or say it is her fault and then treat her like dirt.  What these girls need is not just our salvation, but our love and acceptance and protection of them.  As Danielle Mitchell so eloquently put it, statistics don’t matter.  These are people.  How high of a number of people exploited for sex do you need to do something?  If there is just one girl out there who is being trafficked, in your city, state, country, or the world then you should care, you should take her hand. 

Image six, sadly, does not end this story happily, but it offers a challenge.  Our girl is being dragged off, maybe to a new city, maybe to be beaten and raped again.  She is scared and scarred.  I focused on the hand to show the desperation and imply that she wants physical help, physical action.  She is reaching out pleading with you to stand by her and take her hand: she is asking, “Will you pull me out of my cage?  What will you do to help?  Will you love me?”


Edit 4/12/12 I won the local level and my submission is going to nationals!


  1. Wow,this is amazing.
    You did a great job.

  2. This is fantastic, Jo. And I'm so glad you are fighting against this. :)


  3. WOW! Joanna, you did such an amazing job! Keep up the good work!

  4. I like that while you are accurate in telling a haunting story, you keep it tasteful. Very well done.

  5. Excellent job on drawing awareness to, unfortunately, one of Americas dirtiest little secrets. Only recently have there been efforts to eradicate such a terrible injustice as human trafficking. You also did an excellent job at drawing attention to the insight and feelings of those that become victims..... EXCELLENT EXCELLENT EXCELLENT.

  6. you are WONDERFUL at photo essays! Great Job.