Ten Years Underground: A Photojournalist’s Quest to Expose the Sex Trade
On a June evening in New York earlier this year, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival awarded photojournalist Mimi Chakarova with the Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking for her work on the groundbreaking documentary, The Price of Sex: An Investigation of Sex Trafficking. In the days leading up to her acceptance of the award, writer, director and producer Chakarova says she worried what she would tell everyone in her speech. After all, she thought, how could her courage be compared to that of the women whose stories she had been chronicling these past nine years; women who had survived in the face of extreme economic hardship and the horrors of human trafficking? Then she realized that there was only one thing she could do, what she had set out to do from the beginning. She would tell the truth: “This could have been me.”
When starting the project in 2002, Chakarova says she was initially responding to what she felt was uneven reporting surrounding trafficked women. “A lot of the interviews and reportage that was being published here in the States, as well as in Europe, was being done by men, because it was so difficult to crack into this world. So a lot of male journalists and photographers would pose as clients, in order to get into the brothels and get an interview with the trafficked woman. They would pay the pimp, go into a room, have an hour with a woman—and she would be dressed in lingerie, loads and loads of make-up, usually high out of her mind because most of the women are drugged, and then those kind of images were making it into the press, as well as reporting that was incredibly stereotypical. They spoke about white slavery, about Eastern European women being really beautiful, and how cheap you can get them.”
Chakarova wanted to displace the over-sexualized, scantily dressed images of women coming out of these undercover operations, which she believed only served to exacerbate the problem and further identify women as victims. As a woman with Eastern European origins, she also wanted to understand why so many young women from this region were desperate to leave their homes, and how they were being manipulated and deceived in such large numbers.
But the answers to such questions wouldn’t come easily, and ferreting out the truth meant going back to the beginning—a beginning that she herself had shared with the same women now being trafficked.
Born and raised in a small village in Bulgaria, Chakarova immigrated to the United States in 1990 at the age of 13. The fall of the Soviet bloc the previous year and subsequent introduction of the free market had altered the fabric of village life, with many villagers migrating to foreign countries for work. “There were different waves of migration after the collapse,” Chakarova begins. “The first wave was mostly professionals: people who had skills, who already had good positions—whether it was in academia or science—who were in high demand by the West.”
The impact of first wave migration was tangible, as migrant workers sent money back home to their families in the village. A steady influx of cash from places like Germany and the United States allowed many villagers to purchase homes and other consumer goods for the first time; but as Chakarova explains, not everyone had family members abroad, and many villagers struggled to access this new wealth.
Chakarova sites this discrepancy as one the major contributors to creating an environment conducive to human trafficking. “We had been in this bubble: Everyone had the same amount of stuff. You had a choice of two pairs of shoes, or two types of cheese. There was not really a lot of choice. But now all of a sudden, because you have Deutsch marks or U.S. dollars coming into the country, those relatives that remained were now able to live much better lives…And the neighbors—who didn’t have the resources to leave—would just sit there feeling incredibly stuck and thinking, ‘How in the hell do we get out to also make money, to also improve our lives?’ With that came the second wave of migration, and with it the rise of agencies offering people work in other countries.”
Women, who had enjoyed equal pay with men under communism, proved most at risk, as agencies keen to take advantage of the their desperation poured into villages, offering young women opportunities to work abroad as waitresses and maids. Eager to experience the same new life enjoyed by their neighbors, many women accepted these invitations only to realize too late that they had been deceived and that they were being sold into prostitution. In the years since the first women were coerced into leaving their homes, news of illegitimate agencies and human trafficking has spread through public awareness campaigns. However Chakarova points out that, as the economic desolation persists, so too does the desperation, and women continue to seek work abroad despite the known risks of trafficking.
“Every woman I’ve interviewed through the years I would ask the same question: You were trafficked in 2008, or 2005. This was not the early 90s when this was still a new phenomenon. This has been going on, there have been a lot of public awareness campaigns about sex trafficking. You knew. You must have seen it at bus stops. You must have heard it on the radio that this was happening to women. Why did you do it? And the answer is always the same, which is shocking to me because I’ve interviewed so many women in so many different places; the answer is always: Yes, I knew this existed, but I didn’t think it would happen to me. I thought I would be the lucky one.”
Chakarova faced many obstacles throughout her work on the project. While she began intending to create a photo-reportage of the faces of the real women of the sex trade, she quickly learned that capturing images of survivors would not prove easy. Many of the women had been photographed and videotaped as part of their “break-in” period—the time immediately following the moment a woman realizes she has been trafficked and begins to resist. Chakarova says the methodology employed by traffickers is similar to torture, characterized by intense physical and emotional brutality. Women are beaten, starved, gang-raped, showered with cold water, photographed, and left isolated in the darkness of an apartment or basement. To a trafficked woman, the camera was a weapon, a tool designed to inflict pain and exact control. Chakarova therefore had to spend long periods of time, years in some cases, gaining a woman’s trust before she could ever photograph them.
Conducting interviews also proved problematic.
“The word difficult is an understatement when describing the process of trying to report on this, because no one wants to talk to you. The family doesn’t want to talk. The women that have escaped don’t want to talk. The pimps and traffickers don’t want to talk. No one wants to talk. No one wants to tell you what really happened.”
The first person Chakarova interviewed was a young woman named Vika, who was trafficked at the age of 19. A woman in Vika’s village offered her a job waitressing in Dubai for $500 a week. It was only after arriving that Vika realized she had been trafficked. Many of her clients refused to wear condoms, and within weeks Vika became pregnant. She was then sold three times in the first six months, entertaining clients aged 12 to 83.
It was during one of her meetings with Vika that Chakarova says she realized that she needed to change the scope of her project. “After four years, there was a moment,” she says. “I was watching the way [Vika] smokes: the cigarette is burning and you see the ash is almost burning her fingers; but she doesn’t care, because she’s not there. When’s she’s telling of her experience in Dubai, she’s somewhere else. It was that kind of deep sadness, and the way her body moved and the way her faced moved, her gestures, that I thought: There’s no way that photography is enough for this.”
Chakarova’s revelation resulted in the decision to introduce film, which she hoped would allow her to better convey the entirety of each woman’s experience and depth of despair. The video, together with still photography, interviews and Chakarova’s reporting were assembled into a web-based multimedia series, The Price of Sex: Women Speak (http://priceofsex.org/). Co-produced with the Center for Investigative Reporting, the series of six chapters is intended to introduce viewers to the physical and emotional cost for women who are trafficked, while providing learning tools and resources for distribution and sharing the information.
While Price of Sex: Women Speak represented a milestone in helping to re-define the public image of trafficked women, as a journalist Chakarova could not escape the feeling that the story was still incomplete. In the years that had passed, one group remained illusive. The questions lingered:
“Who are these traffickers? Who are the guys who purchase the women? Who are the pimps? Who are the people benefiting and exploiting the women…and destroying them?”
The danger of an undercover operation was undeniable: the world of trafficking is a savage sea dominated by underground networks of clever traffickers, mafia henchmen, and corrupt law enforcement. Chakarova had posed as a prostitute before; but in order to get this side of the story, she would have to do the unthinkable and expose herself as a journalist to the very people responsible for making women disappear.
Traveling to Aksaray, Turkey, where prostitution is legal and demand for trafficked women is high, Chakarova worked her own network of trusted contacts to gain an audience with a pimp, as well as two police officers that frequented brothels as paying customers. Through these interviews, Chakarova hoped to get to the bottom of the prevailing obsession with “Natashas”—the name of a fictional Russian KGB agent that has come to represent all Eastern European women, reducing them to faceless objects void of humanity.
Though her meeting with the pimp ended promptly, providing few answers, her conversation with the men patronizing the brothels was more revealing. When asked about the obsession with Eastern European women, the men were quick to identify their physical beauty, particularly that of Russian women, as the main attraction. It is this sort of stereotype that Chakarova says fuels the demand for trafficked women in destination countries like Dubai, Greece, and Turkey, where low paid, disinterested law enforcement is easily persuaded to look the other way.
And men are not the only culprits: Many women are complicit in trafficking other women. Jenea, a young woman from Moldova, was trafficked at the age of 18 by a woman who was known to her. After visiting her family for permission to take their daughter to Moscow to work as a maid, the woman then sold Jenea to a brothel in Turkey.
If you ask Chakarova to identify the three main factors why trafficking still exists in Eastern Europe, she will tell you the answer is always the same: “poverty, poverty, and poverty.” Poverty and demand. And as long as people’s needs are being met, women will continue to be at risk.
It has been almost a decade since Chakarova began her quest. In that time, her project has evolved from a photo-reportage, to an online multimedia series, to a full-length documentary film. The Price of Sex: An Investigation of Sex Trafficking premiered at the 2011 Sarasota Film Festival in April, and has been screening to sold out audiences in the United States and abroad. Given the complacent attitudes that persist throughout the world today, Chakarova says she finds the public’s response “hopeful” and is further encouraged by people’s desire to get involved.
Rather than simply supporting financially through donations, however, Chakarova says that the real power people have in effecting lasting change is to educate themselves and to share information.
“People want an immediate way of solving this. They want to know, where can I send money? My response to that is, ‘That would be letting you off too easy.’
“My solution is to encourage people to be as informed as possible, which is why we spent so much time on building PriceofSex.org and providing resources…It’s an interactive tool that we’re using in today’s age.”
In addition to public screenings, the film was recently used by the FBI as a training tool for an anti-corruption police force in Serbia, a hotbed for trafficking activity. The feedback from the screening revealed that police officers apprehending women during raids never realized the circumstances by which the women came into the sex trade; that they simply thought of them as trash, as problems to be gotten out of the country. However, after seeing the film and listening to the stories of survivors, they began to acknowledge the human story behind each woman’s face.
“This is definitely not a story about numbers,” Chakarova says. “Show [people] the human element, show them people that they realize are not that different from who they are, and you will see how much that moves them.”
The dedication Chakarova has given to this project—and to the women—these past ten years is tremendous. Few people are able to commit themselves so fully to the pursuit of truth and justice in the name of others, and it is for this reason the Human Rights Watch Film Festival saw it fit to honor her with the Nestor Alemndros award. Nevertheless, she remains grounded in both her past and her conviction:
“I feel like I’m lucky not to be in this position. The only thing I can do is tell the story well. This is my gift to these girls.”
Author: Misty Ericson
Misty Ericson holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature from San Jose State University, California, and an MA History of Art from University of Leeds, UK. In addition to her work on HerCircleEzine.com, which she founded in 2005, Misty enjoys painting in her studio and restoring her home in the English countryside.