Video and Trafficking

Curator's Note

Like many human rights abuses, the phenomenon of human trafficking poses challenges to representation. As an illicit practice, the networks and processes are difficult to monitor. Meanwhile, securing testimony adds to the challenge, as victims fear repercussions - whether from the host nation that threatens deportation or from the traffickers who threaten retaliation, if not to the trafficked subject, then to his or her family. Film and video provide means for visualising these unseen systems, and have, in recent years, been mobilised to support anti-trafficking campaigns and legislation. There are extraordinary cases in which footage is procured, such as with Gillian Caldwell’s Bought and Sold: An Investigative Documentary about the International Trade in Women. The documentary, which features secretly-taped clandestine operations as well as interviews with victims and experts, has become a centrepiece in a wide-ranging campaign to promote awareness and response. MiraMed, an anti-trafficking coalition based in Russia, has used the film in multiple ways, showing the film to young women at risk from trafficking, as well as to NGOs, educators and parents. (A brief case history of Bought and Sold can be found here). Given the challenges, however, feature narrative films perform an important function.


Films such as Lilya 4-Ever, Sex Traffic, Human Trafficking , Ghosts, Holly and even the ludicrous Taken begin to visualise these unseen worlds, and bring the issue of trafficking to popular attention. And, at times, the films are themselves used in campaigns for justice. Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts, for instance, is tied to the Morecambe Victims Fund, with the film’s website providing a source of information and donation options. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) opened the UN Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking with a screening of Human Trafficking and since then, they provide a DVD - available in nine languages - to those wishing to organise screenings with the participation of a US State Department official. Holly, the story of an American living in Phnom Penh who attempts to save a 12-year old Vietnamese girl who has been sold into prostitution, has played a role in the Redlight Children campaign). Prior to the film’s commercial release Holly was screened at the United Nations Headquarters in New York as well as at the US State Department in Washington DC. Although the film invites the highly gendered and racialised fantasy of rescue with a First world male saviour tending to the imperilled Third World women (or girls), it does give screen time to one-time trafficking victim Somaly Mam’s NGO: (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire (AFESIP)). Mam has attended screenings, providing a vision of Cambodian agency and action. And, DVD sales benefit AFESIP as well as Redlight Children.  


As indicated with the discussion of Holly, a consideration of advocacy impact requires attention to strategies of usage and representation. How the films circulate, and to whom, are necessary questions when considering the possibility of effect. But what else might such films be saying or hiding in their presentation of the issues? Films about sex trafficking seem not only to police the criminal trade of women, but the women’s bodies themselves. The standard narrative goes as follows: a young woman leaves home for pleasure or work; she meets a sinister man who seduces or abducts her; she either perishes in confinement, or is rescued and repatriated. This reduction does not serve to demean the genuine pain experience, but instead to note the presence of a morality tale that speaks to anxieties over women’s mobility, and possibly, by extension, anxieties over migration. Moreover, the focus on sex traffic places the phenomenon squarely within criminality and immorality, detracting from considerations of economic impetus for immigration and the place of trafficked persons within the mainstream economy (where they work in service, agricultural and domestic sectors).


Public Service Announcements similarly reflect these methodologies and concerns and, in some ways, introduce new questions as these media traditionally used for television or meetings, have migrated to the Internet - for both wider viewing availability for further usage. (This media migration merits greater attention that can be received here.) One finds the PSAs on the UNODC resource site as well as on YouTube, Facebook, and other anti-human trafficking sites, such as MTV-EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking). The spots function to promote awareness to general audiences, to warn those vulnerable to trafficking, and to advance specific action plans for those able to act. Work Abroad (2001) (pictured) is aimed at potential victims, indicating that within the promise of overseas travel and employment lurks a powerful menace. At all times, the images give lie to the promises of the text on screen. Claims of provisions, excitement, and salaries are met with confinement, isolation, rape, and drugs. This warning is undoubtedly crucial, and yet we can nonetheless see how a woman’s dream of travel and self-sufficiency is met with punishment and confinement. Nevertheless, this PSA is one many, with others referencing domestic and agricultural labour, and additional others seeking to empower both trafficked people and bystanders, alerting them to means of taking action. Such PSAs include Better Future (UNODC, 2002) Cleaning Woman (UNODC, 2003) and Telephone (UNODC, 2003), Open Your Eyes to Human Trafficking (UNGIFT, 2008), Witness (Terre des Hommes Germany, 2006).



Sarah Van Deusen Phillips's picture

Leshu—this post adds a lot to

Leshu—this post adds a lot to the discussion we’ve been having  of how women get victimized in the economies of immigration.  In human rights, it seems that the discourse gets fragmented in potentially  siloed ways—sex workers’ rights, women’s rights, worker’s rights, children’s rights, etc., etc., etc.  But it seems to me that these things are all inter-twined, both in terms  and immigration as a larger social movement/challenge/issue and human rights—as this post shows.  As global interests shape economies, the least protected members of many societies—women and children—suffer  calculated exploitation and violence for local economic gain, but somehow policy makers fail to draw the connection between the global and the local in this respect.  This is not to downplay the legitimate violence and exploitation that men experience—that is also part of the whole cycle of interelated global, national, and local conditions that strcuturally shape immigration and exploitation of labor on all levels.  It seems that there’s a trickle down effect of the worst kind here—money is moving from the wealthy nations to the poor (just as Reaganomics would predict, no?), but in inverse proportion to violence and exploitation.

Vibhuti Ramachandran's picture

Conflating issues, identities and experiences

The extensive use of images by anti-trafficking campaigns, particularly since USAID started to pump millions of dollars into the UNODC’s efforts to clamp down on global trafficking, is indeed striking. NGOs across the world seem to be increasingly involved, often in partnership with the UNODC, in the production of PSA videos similar to the one posted here, as well as poster campaigns to generate greater awareness on the issue of trafficking. Clearly, there seems to be a recognition of the efficacy of such images to communicate a sense of human trafficking as an organized crime, which falls squarely within the UNODC’s mandate. As custodian of the Palermo Protocol against Trafficking in Persons, the UNODC is concerned with human trafficking through the specific lenses of crime prevention and victim protection. My discomfort with some of these PSA videos is that when produced with the agenda of the UNODC (and partner NGOs) so defined, the ‘transnational organized crime’ perspective tends to translate into, perhaps even requires, a rather generic set of images and juxtapositions.




While such a perspective is perfectly legitimate as the mandate of a particular organization, its capacity to define the way human trafficking must be perceived globally, through the circulation of these videos, can result in its specific agenda standing in for the experience of trafficking ‘as a whole’. I have observed two threads running through these PSAs - for one, a sort of ‘universalization’ of the experience of trafficking, often wiping away the specific circumstances under which a particular subject featured in the video was trafficked, and secondly, a conflation of several issues (trafficking/prostitution, or trafficking/migration) as part of one narrative. Both these threads may be discerned in the ‘Work Abroad’ video - we know nothing at all about the woman who appears in the first scene, and her story is later interwoven with that of another woman working in a massage parlor, about whom we again have no information. Where did these women come from? What were the conditions under which they were trafficked? What was similar about their stories and experiences outside of their aspirations to work abroad being exploited by invisible agents who apparently sold them to work in less than ideal work conditions? Given that these videos are intended at targeted interventions against trafficking, would it not be relevant to mention whether it was a family member, fiance, or more institutionalized recruiting service that was responsible? There also seem to be several different work contexts here - massage parlor, erotic dancing, etc. Can we assume the conditions of work in all of these contexts to be the same?




I have noticed that even when care is taken to bring out very specific stories, their juxtaposition in one narrative can do something similar in terms of what one is expected to take away from it. For instance, the UNODC film ‘One Life, No Price’ that focuses on trafficking in India, brings out very different contexts of trafficking ranging from child labor and domestic servitude to the forced prostitution of minor girls. However, the stringing together of these different stories asks the viewer to think of all of them within the same framework - that of organized crime and an abstracted sense of victimhood. Without denying that there could possibly be something that all those subjected to trafficking may experience in common, I would like to see some alternative modes of representation, outside of attempts to visualize these experiences in the same idiom, implying similar causes and proposing common solutions.




Further, can we assume that the women in ‘Work Abroad’ were trafficked just by virtue of them working in what are presented as immoral spaces? Every image in the video does not depict coercion, or violence against women. Indeed, some of the images themselves have the potential to be interpreted as contexts of work that could possibly have been chosen by the women involved, or as contexts that do not necessarily stand for violence against women. However, the narrative and the melancholy ambient music ask us to obliterate these possibilities from our evaluation of these situations. On the issue of prostitution, the UNODC has stated explicitly, at least on paper, that it maintains a ‘neutral’ stance. That is, outside of a context where prostitution is tied to exploitation, member nations ratifying the Palermo Protocol may decide on whether to criminalize or decriminalize prostitution at their discretion. But does the crafting of the narrative in the video even hint at the possibility that prostitution can be legitimate work, and not an inherently criminal or victimizing source of income?





Yesterday, I went to see the art exhibit ‘Journey’, conceptualized by the actress Emma Thompson, who has worked closely with the UNODC and the Helen Bamber Foundation to raise awareness about women who are trafficked into prostitution. The exhibit was first mounted in London, apparently played a key role in the Vienna Forum Leshu mentions, and is now on display in New York. In many ways, it seems to recycle the same themes I highlighted above. The inspiration for this exhibit was ostensibly the traumatic experience of Elena, a Moldovan woman trafficked into prostitution in Britain, whose story Emma Thompson herself has narrated in audio interviews. However, much of the exhibit, undoubtedly a remarkable exercise in collaborative art, serves to take us away from Elena’s story to paint a very wide canvas of women of different racial, ethnic and national backgrounds whose experiences in prostitution are implied to be essentially the same. Indeed, one section of the exhibit invites the viewer to look into several mirrors placed on top of the highly eroticized and sexualized bodies of female prostitutes, reminding us that ‘it could be you or me.’ The suggestion that each of us can actually experience this woman’s trauma is made most explicit in Anish Kapoor’s contribution to the exhibit, titled ‘Stigma’, where one is invited to stand in a circle of darkness where all one can see is one’s own shadow, and a volunteer explains that it is intended to demonstrate ‘what it is like’ to experience loneliness. Instead of focusing on the relevant details of Elena’s life, the works of art, photographs and humanitarian discourse in this exhibit are melded together into a single, deliberately coherent narrative in which we are asked to experience her journey as if her entire life can be distilled and abstracted not only onto the bodies of other women, but even unto ourselves. Strikingly, in the case of the video as well as the exhibit, the deployment of images toward a resonance with what Leshu aptly describes as ‘available interpretive grids’ are supposed to invoke a sense that ‘it could be me’ or ‘it could be one of us’, since the situatedness of the experience is of no consequence. It is the very familiarity through which these images interpellate us that becomes a key strategy to generate awareness. Apart from the issue of misrepresenting specific instances of trauma and pain as something generic, what makes this strategy of familiarity problematic is a tendency toward a reductive simplification. In the ‘Journey’ exhibit, for instance, our movement from one shipping container to another is supposed to recreate the experiences of women trafficked across borders. By rendering something as complicated as trafficking into images and narratives accessible to ‘all of us’, the very process of movement can be framed to stand in for a process we are to understand is the result of coercion rather than volition. Clearly there are several conflations at work here.





I will end with some further thoughts, which I can’t unfortunately do justice to in this space, but would love to hear others comment on. I have often wondered about who the imagined audiences for these PSAs or awareness-generation exercizes are. Such images do not only use familiraity as an eye-opening tool. There is certainly some deployment of shock-value. What about the overt sexualization of women’s bodies, dressing women trafficked into prostitution in heels, thongs and erotic clothing, such as in this video? It seems as though well-intentioned campaigns meant to generate awareness must invite through these images precisely the sort of gaze they are fighting so hard against.


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