Why You Can’t Take a Picture of Human Trafficking

June 02, 2016 Mariah Long Opinion 
Forced Labor, Awareness

When you look up images of slavery in America, you will see pictures of chain gangs and whip marks. We associate these as photos of slavery since much of this brutality was done in public and we’ve learned about it in school. We see images of black farmers working in a cotton field and say “that’s slavery.” Chattel slavery in America looked like black men, women and children working or being chained.

Today, that is not the case. You can’t take a picture of a woman on a corner and say “that’s slavery” nor can you say that about farm workers from Latin America working in Florida tomato fields and say “that’s slavery.” The reason you can’t take a picture of slavery today is because it is dependent on the narrative. If you don’t know why someone is working, you will not be able to know if they’re enslaved or not. By definition, trafficking is forcing someone to work using threats, force, fraud or coercion. 

You can take a picture of a woman giving manicures for 12 hours a day, but unless you knew her story, you wouldn’t know she is working to pay back an impossible debt to an employer threatening to kill her child back home if she doesn’t work. You wouldn’t know it was slavery unless you knew why she was working.
In this example, the trafficker is using threats and coercion.

When you pick up your Indian takeout, you could take a picture of the cooks in the back, but you wouldn’t know that they are slaves unless you knew that their trafficker beats them or that he has taken their passports and threatened them with deportation if they talk to the police. You wouldn’t know that one worker has a master’s degree, came to the U.S. on a legal visa and thought he would be working in his field of engineering.
In this example, the trafficker used fraud and is using force and threats.

You might not know that these people are enslaved, and they might not know it either. Many times, they feel like they are working off a legal debt or that their boss will finally pay their back wages or that their pimp really loves and cares for them.

That’s what makes trafficking so hard to identify today. If people don’t realize they’re being trafficked, then how are you supposed to know they are being enslaved and take action?

Harriet Tubman said it best when she said,

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if they only knew they were slaves.”

Oftentimes, people ask, “What does human trafficking look like, and how do I know someone is being trafficked?” No single glimpse into the lives of the enslaved or single photo can answer these questions. It is only when we observe, listen, ask questions and hear a person’s story that we identify cases of human trafficking.

Topics: Forced Labor, Awareness

About the Author

Mariah Long

Mariah was previously the Program Manager of End Slavery Now. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati's DAAP program with a degree in Digital Design.