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The Forsaken 30 Million: Modern Slavery

by: Bianca Ozeri

March 11, 2014

Words give scarce justice to our global atrocities. Too many of us, after reading a headline or perusing the paper, leave but a few moments for sympathy and move on with our day. There seems little more we can do. But for those who have ventured into the violence, into the places where evil feels more an inborn trait than an abnormal deviation, the plight of the maltreated has a constant hold.

Lisa Kristine has been documenting slavery since 2009. In India and Nepal, she visited kilns where people spend sixteen hours a day constructing and hauling bricks in 130 degree heat. She went to brothels—or as they’re known in Kathmandu, cabin restaurants—where girls as young as seven are being held captive in prostitution. She took photos of families in India whose hands are permanently stained from years of enslavement in the silk-dying industry. She photographed children in Ghana, forced to fish day and night on Lake Volta, where skin disease, parasitic worms, and malaria are prevalent. Everyone she met on the lake, Lisa told me, knew at least one person who had drowned. She saw men—some of whom had been enslaved their entire lives—descend narrow shafts into Ghanaian gold mines, where breathing is a burden and cave-ins are common. Women, meanwhile, surrounded by their children, panned for it above ground in mercury-poisoned mud. In affiliation with Free The Slaves, a global anti-slavery organization formed in 2000, Lisa’s four-year project has sought to expose an abomination far too overlooked in our social terrain. The camera picks up where language falls short.

You’ve visited slave sites all over the world. Can you talk a bit about what the visits entailed and how they were set up?

When I was in areas where slavery was occurring, I was brought in at very specific times, when the managers weren’t there, when the brokers weren’t there, when the slave holders weren’t there. So I had small windows of 10 or 15 minutes at a time to go in. I had people who were working in the system, undercover abolitionists who would bring me in. There were obviously any number of abuses going on all the time. There are definitely rapes and other maltreatments, but, generally, when anyone is under the control of another, any kind of abuse you can imagine can occur.

Did you feel anger at the sites, or was it more a complacency, an acceptance?

No, people who are enslaved don’t have room for anger. They have room to survive and room to get through the moments and the days—all of their energy is pretty complacent. It’s utter powerlessness.

A lot of modern day slavery occurs because of an unpaid debt that is passed on through generations. Was this often the case with the people to whom you spoke?

It depended on the type of slavery and where I was. I’d go in for fifteen minutes then I’d go out and then I’d go in again. I did have the opportunity to speak with people simply because the project has gone over such a long period of time, so I’ve spoken to victims and I’ve spoken to survivors, as well, but slavery can happen to anyone. It is true to say that in many circumstance the debt that people have falsely incurred is inherited by the next generation—and it doesn’t ever get smaller, it just grows. But slavery can also come from [false promises]: I can give you this great job, won’t you come with me? And your parents sign off on it because they want the best for you and the minute you’re trafficked into order, your ID is taken away, your papers are taken away, your passport is taken from you, and you are forced to do whatever that person wants you to do. So slavery isn’t only inherited, it can be a matter, really, of turning down the wrong street.

Can you discuss one story of liberation that you were particularly moved by?

I met Kofi in a shelter. He was taken from his family under false promises and essentially vanished from his community and was sold into a fishing village on Lake Volta [in Ghana] as a very young boy. They love kids because kids have very small, nimble fingers and they can pull out little fish tethered to the net. He was forced to work sixteen hours a day, and he’s just a kid, he was practically a baby at that time! He was rescued by Free The Slaves and partners of Free The Slaves on Lake Volta and brought to this shelter, where the photograph was made. There, he was taught not only how to be human again, but how to be a kid. He had no sense of what it was to play or, rather, he didn’t have room for that in his life. But now he’s been reunited with his parents and what’s even better is that his parents are making an actual living and have been taught to identify a trafficker when they see one.

What does the trafficking end of slavery look like? Who are these people and how well do they maintain their anonymity?

They are very anonymous. They are very smart and they know how to lie. It’s not just a bunch of loser people there—they are very organized and they are very connected and they are very powerful. Policemen are being bought off and the system is almost always corrupt in places where slavery is existing. That said, slaveholders, who are frequently the same race as the people they enslave, have families and they have children that they send off to school everyday—and then they have children that they enslave. The irony is great. Slavery can be right in front of you and you don’t know it. There was a restaurant in Berkeley [California] that was run under slavery. You can be sure there are slaves in your area, it’s everywhere.

You work a lot with Free The Slaves. How does the organization work to actually liberate people?

Free The Slaves works at liberating entire communities of people at a time. Other organizations, like International Justice Mission (IJM), work on laws that help protect people under a vulnerable circumstance so that these things can’t happen to them. But Free The Slaves goes in with partners that are indigenous to the country that particular slavery is occurring in. We know that slavery is illegal in every country in the world and yet it exists in nearly every country in the world. So partners of Free The Slaves would be from Ghana and work in Ghana as abolitionists and go in as a cover to help people slowly understand their plight: that they are not being given any rights that they deserve, that they are enslaved, and that there is a possibility out there of a much more beautiful life. It usually takes about 2 to 3 years to liberate a group of people so that they’re not only physically free, but are also mentally and emotionally no longer vulnerable to falling back into slavery.

What was your own personal experience of going into these sites? How do you manage to keep yourself together?

At one point, when I was in the brick kiln—there were women with dust all over their faces, and they were mechanically putting these four-pound bricks on their heads, eighteen bricks at a time, in 130 degree heat. The abolitionists and guardians around me were fainting and vomiting because the heat was so intense, and I looked at these women and I just burst out crying and the abolitionist directly next to me said, “Lisa, do not do that here. It is not okay. It is not good for you and it is not good for them.” In that instance, I realized that the only power I had in that moment was to be a witness and to bear a torch for them. I decided then that I was going to commit to sharing their stories and their plight. I knew, for sure, that viewers would not be able to turn away, as I could not turn away. Usually though, when I have my emotional outbursts it’s when I’m editing in my studio. If I turn my face away, that horror continues, but if I don’t, if I look at it, and dare to share, then you’re going to dare to share, and we all become more aware and we all say no.

What was your initial drive for this project? Was it personal, or did it come more from a photojournalistic place?

In the greater sense, I work at documenting humanity and inspiring unity through our differences. What would the world be like if instead of reacting to other people’s differences with fear, we reacted with curiosity and wonder? Our relationships between countries would be very different. My work has always been about documenting communities that are vulnerable to change, and all of my work has always been done in such a measure of dignity.

At one point I was asked to be at the World Peace Summit with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other Nobel laureates, and it was there that I met a member of Free The Slaves and learned about slavery. I suppose I was just so appalled that my vocation is so much about dignity and I had failed to see this, I had failed at my duty to be a witness. It sort of hit me like a freight train. I couldn’t sleep. I flew down to Los Angeles within weeks to help and I thought that if I could make images of these people in dignity, no matter how dire or horrible their circumstance, and create a relationship between the viewer and the image, then I can create a connection, and when there is a connection, then we can’t tolerate abuses like slavery. It’s only through the disconnect and seeing each other as the other that we fail.

What is your WILD Wish?

That we are able to see one another as fellow human beings and treat one another with the respect and dignity we all deserve and finally—because of that—we will not tolerate slavery or any such atrocity.

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