You are a storyteller; tell me about how you decide to frame your stories?
I first learn about the subject I am to photograph. I also look into the ways the same subject was shown before, I prefer defying the stereotypes, when possible. I believe that with social documentary photography, at the end of the day, no matter how one envisions a narrative flow of the story and preconceives a story, one has to make the best of what the immediate reality offers. And for me this is a constructive challenge.
Why did you originally decide to photograph the topic of sex trafficking?
I found out what sex trafficking really means, this is what triggered my work. At the time there was not much visual coverage of the illegal trade. Sex trafficking has been the most profitable illegal business since the 1989 falling of the Soviet Union; it is a form of violence against women from my society; public knowledge on this issue or even the fact that it was happening existed to a small extent. Such societies never thought of doing something against it until very recently, on the contrary they grow a thick skin and they receive news about it as a sensational story that they can live with.
So I decided to get a closer look at sex trafficking and record what it means for these women to survive sexual slavery. I chose to look inside their souls – which for me at the time seemed very difficult to do, but that is what I was most interested in. And after having heard their stories, I wanted to look at their traces: at what women who had disappeared for years and who are believed to be trafficked and sexually enslaved leave behind. This became an essential angle and part of the narrative.
After being involved in this project, I am realizing that its beginnings might have also been triggered by my interest and knowledge of the woman’s position in societies like the one I was born in.
What was your childhood like? Can you relate to these women at all through your personal experience and upbringing?
My childhood memories play roles in creative processes that I am involved in. I often relive my childhood through my memories of it and that world of mine comes naturally back now and again. A fluent course of images from the past will interconnect to my present reality and I guess this shapes, too, what I see when I take a photograph. In the case of not Natasha, I should admit that all my childhood I was used to see sad faces of the women who might have experienced domestic violence. As well, poverty was not something new or exotic for me, not that I was poor myself, I am coming from a middle class family, but one can see poverty at all pace and at different levels across my native country.
You said Moldova is Land in limbo, that it is the main supplier for sex trade, and poorest country in Europe. Do these things make the trafficking worse?
Of course! Poverty is the real reason for people’s vulnerability. There will be exploiters to take advantage of their vulnerability and despair to live a better life. In this case, jobs abroad where offered to women and women would take the risk. A job abroad, in a world of dreams, is the only possibility for one to escape poverty. It is easier for traffickers to go to poor villages and target jobless people living in terrible conditions. Most of the times, the offer comes from a person close to the woman, but even if there is a little risk, the woman is ready to take it. Nowadays Moldavian people are much more aware of the trafficking issue thanks to the awareness campaigns throughout the country. I believe, though, that if they want to escape poverty, they would still take the risk of leaving abroad following the offer of a better life.
Willing and forced? Your work is forced prostitution! Why did you decide to focus on forced prostitution?
Oh, it is great that we can draw a clear distinction between forced prostitution and willing prostitution. Well, I wanted to make the distinction even starting with the title of the project. ‘Natasha’, as Dalia explained to me, is a nickname for sex workers with eastern European looks, and the women who had been tricked into a world of dreams and then lured into different destination countries and forced into sexual slavery ‘hate the name of ‘Natasha’! Because we are not Natasha’s, do you understand?” Dalia told me. These women did not opt to become sex workers, they were locked in all sorts of locations, from flats and houses to brothels, threatened, beaten up and raped, put on drugs and alcohol and forced into it. When I researched my subject, it was shown that women from Moldova had been sent to as many as 42 destinations.
To get back to your question, forced prostitution is the most spread form of human trafficking and the business of human trafficking is estimated to have a market value of 32 billion dollars. I focused on forced prostitution because it is a hidden business obviously, which happens right underneath our eyes, because societies that export sex slaves would do nothing to stop it until very recently, because I wanted to document pain that is mute, and which mutilates a woman forever, because such a form of violence is happening in our times…
What was the hardest aspect of this project for you?
Getting access was the hardest aspect. I worked a lot to establish all sorts of connections with NGOs fighting sex trafficking in different countries. I received less than half of the help I needed to make the story. The rest I had to do myself, which was difficult and took time.
Access to these women seemed to be a huge challenge. How did you explain why you were doing this project to the women in order to gain access?
Access was the most frustrating part all along the years I did this work. It took a long time and if I wanted to photograph a new angle of the story, getting access would still take long, even though my work on sex trafficking was known by then; I can’t explain why. I initially got access through 2 local NGOs in Moldova; the social workers allowed me to visit the women who survived trafficking and were now living back in their homes, or wherever they returned to. It was important that I stayed faithful to my concept, I wanted to see how the women who had gone through the most horrific experience kept on living, and living with a deep pain, forever traumatized. It was not hard to explain why I was interested in them. The most pleasant part of the learning process was when I spent time at one of the shelters that offered them psychological assistance and accommodation for a month or so. I had spent 2 weeks with girls that just escaped sexual slavery. They were spinning stories about their ordeals every evening. This is what actually helped me frame the story and urged me to continue it at a later stage.
You worked with a physiologist at the shelter, did working with this person help you understand what these women have gone through?
As soon as I had a short conversation with the psychologist at the shelter, I understood that she would be the right person to introduce me to the trauma these women were still going through. This way I could learn and understand about the women that had escaped sex trafficking without me asking certain personal questions that could create unwanted moments between me and the person that I was photographing. So, every time I would visit a woman in her familiar space, I would know details of what happened to her, what sort of mental problems she remained with, how many children she had, if from rape, how she escaped, loads of details etc. Sometimes, if I had a good relationship with the girl I would photograph and if I had time to develop such relationship, as it happened with the girls accommodated at the shelter, they would tell me details that the psychologist hadn’t told me. Psychologist Ana also suggested which women I should pay visits to, and this was again of great, great use. Later on the same psychologist told me how they were deported via boat from Istanbul to Odessa, etc, information that guided me in one of my journeys to develop the work.
Do you think it helped that you could speak Romanian? Did this help you with access?
I guess it did help a bit; It did at the times when I was listening to all the details the girls where sharing with me, and it was also useful in establishing a friendship with some of the girls I spent longer time with. I don’t think it helped me with the access. If I had been an American let’s say, the social workers would have probably been more enthusiastic to work faster and please the American, it’s more prestigious and exotic to work with an American than with a young Romanian girl. One day, a social worker that had just returned from holiday asked me if I was one of the new girls at the shelter. I truly enjoyed being close to the girls and that was of paramount importance for this project.
Do you think it is important for a woman to photograph sex trafficking? If you were a man, do you think it would have been hard for you to gain access to these women?
I guess being a woman makes it easier to understand and to empathize with the women who escaped sexual slavery. Both men and women photographers can gain the same access to the issue, the difference is the level of intimacy one can and wants to gain with the subject of her/his photography. The more intimate I was, the more details of their journeys and of their trauma I received, and the better I could shape the story.
Why did you want to photograph these women after they returned home?
I wanted to look at the deep marks that sexual slavery leaves on a human being. I wanted to show what one couldn’t see: the interior hidden trauma; that was the challenge for me. I also wanted to look at the reason why women would take the chance, leave their children, families behind and flee their country; also if they integrate back, if the society puts a stigma on them. I was also aware that this angle would give me time to meet more women and to dig deep into this subject and to put together the pieces of the puzzle. I should say that my very first intention was to look at the places and families where women who were being trafficked had gone missing. But when I had the opportunity to do the portrait of the survivors, of course, I took it. Colleagues and people from the industry tell me that the pictures which do not show people are stronger, but for me it is essential that the audience can see the women who went through this ordeal that I am photographing. They exist. They are unheard, uncared and splitting pain exists.
Empty spaces represent missing women? Can you tell me more about this?
I had the opportunity to continue the work through a commission from Autograph ABP that later published the book. I followed my story line looking at the spaces where the women who are sex slaves once belonged. Their presence was strong there, and one could still feel it through the families who were longing for them, through objects left behind, through their rooms kept intact, exactly as they where when they went missing or little pictures transformed into little altars. Later on, I looked at the places where such women are held captive and forced into prostitution. This was my way of representing missing women: through empty spaces that once were filled with their natural presence and empty spaces where they are forced to exist.
Can you tell me a little about the one family snap shot in the book?
I found this picture in the house of a woman who went missing after accepting the offer of a job abroad. She left behind a 5- year old who was going to be sent to an orphanage. I noticed this picture stuck on furniture when visiting her household. Such framing of a frame is the most realistic way of showing and thus proving this woman existed; this is how she looked. It was a moment in her life and we know her through the object/document, which is the photograph. I looked at my picture of a picture and it gave me the feeling I have when I wake up, and remain with fading bits of my dreams, it’s like the touchable proof of my dream. In fact this is tough reality and it stays unfading touchable through the object picture.
Captions, tell me about these words in the back of the book.
Words are of paramount importance for the story. I have been told that I took beautiful pictures of sex trafficked women. Well, words come to tell the horrific story these women went through. And the words are their words. At times I would be amazed at what women who survived sex trafficking would tell me. Words like ‘why do you have to dig up my life again?’ or ‘my husband sold me’ or ‘(…) only the thought of my daughter back home kept me alive” are not to forget, their honesty and maybe need to shout struck me; I thought I had to give these girls, whom I was photographing, their own voice. The story is told better like that. So I thought of leaving the pictures to flow throughout the book, to bleed the pages in silence, like some moments of my meetings with them were. Leaving the pictures to the interpretation of the reader was a good way of telling the story. And then read the words at the end. The director of Autograph knew the stories behind the work and decided that my journey in making the work was part of the story, therefore by adding my notes at the back of the book, the reader would get closer to the experience and the subject of this project. And it would also have the structure of a journey, which is what the women had experienced from the moment they fell into the hands of traffickers.
What is your favorite photo and why?
Well, I don’t have a favorite photo. There are many photographs that stand alone strong and tell the story. I am content to have managed to take these pictures.
I began by asking about your story telling. I would like to end by asking you if you were more interested in the story or getting the story out into the world once you finished?
To be honest I give more importance to taking the story out in the world once it is finished. That plays again an important part in the photographic process.
What are you working on today?
[New] Europeans. Understanding a generation
Twenty years on after the Romanian ‘Revolution’ in December 1989, the heavy grey blocks of flats – a painful communist legacy – remain an unchanged feature of the country.
Recently I met with young people in Romania to see what their lives are like nowadays. Connected to the world via internet, with access to the latest news, and freedom to travel anywhere in Europe, with possibilities of driving convertible cars in their 20s and studying abroad, they cannot imagine
the grim realities of long queues for milk, limited food supplies and rationing of petrol. Nor can they imagine disappearances without trace, the 75 political prisons and labor camps, the everyday censorship with bans on foreign media and travel. This is a generation that has no memories of communism.
Young people live in a reality that inevitably carries on much from the communist past, molded through the bittersweet changes that followed, and is now becoming anchored in imported culture of western Europe. Girls in Romania now wear the latest Italian fashion, boys have the
latest technological gadgets. They all freely apply to university courses in western Europe and often party in Ibiza. The choice of a frenzied consumerism was gracefully and completely embraced.
Out of the ten young people I met and photographed, three chose to attend universities in the UK, following the example set by their older friends. This is considered a pinnacle of success for ordinary people of Romania. One doesn’t have to be rich. There will always be ways of escaping. But this would only be an individual escape. And it already lead to an explosion of Eastern European immigrants throughout the western Europe.
The truth is that the gap between the poor and the rich has been deepening since the fall of the Iron Curtain. In 2005, the richest 30% of the households in Romania had higher accumulated income than the remaining 70%; and 50% of households consume more than they earn. It is most common that parents fully support their children with everyday cost of living until they graduate from master degrees. Private universities appeared like mushrooms after heavy rain. Romanian society proves to be twisted, incomprehensible and hard to explain. Strange as it may seem, both the rich and the poor can afford to attend a private university, although some parents might have to work abroad to support their children in their education.
Despite corruption and nepotism and other bad habits – often excused as traces of the 44 years of imposed communism – some things have been changing at a very slow pace. Romanians used to think that a whole generation would have to pass away to erase the traces of cemented communist mentality. Their recent acceptance into the EU is like a dream that has come true. The struggle for visas with overnight queues at embassies are gone. Spending the week-end in Paris or shopping in London is fashionable and is not only for the rich and well-connected. The choice is there for everyone with a passport to travel.
The western life that youth is taught to aspire to is represented through every aspect of life: television programs, kindergarten books, teaching methods, advertising campaigns, Ikea shops, clubs. Everything needs to be imported, in a desperate attempt to create distance with the past, and to keep catch up with the rest of Europe.
But how do you resolve the problem of a generation that thinks it has not been born in the right place, that does not come at terms with the background, mentality and landscape it was born into, that thinks its only chance is to flee abroad?