How many people’s labor has been forced and coerced so that you can have access to necessities and enjoy a few comforts? The website slaveryfootprint.org answers this question. According to the website’s estimate, the lifestyle of a middle-class person in the US is made possible by abusive labor exploitation of 30 people around the world. The website seeks to raise awareness of and inspire action against this global crime. (For more about labor trafficking, read “Labor Trafficking, Modern Slavery,” on the front page of this issue.)
ArtWorks for Freedom, an organization founded in 2011 by photographer Kay Chernush, has this same mission. In 2005, Chernush began to explore different forms of human trafficking under a contract with the US government. The State Department had hired her as a photographer for their investigations into trafficking in persons, and sent her to Asia and Europe to document this grim reality. “I was gripped and haunted by the faces of the people I was photographing, and by their stories,” says Chernush. Their fate so overwhelmed her that she “decided to use my photographs to try to make a difference in the counter-trafficking arena.”
Soon she began to work with non-governmental organizations fighting against trafficking in Ghana, Brazil, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. After immersing herself in the subject, her photography changed. Chernush began to produce images that were “fairly abstract and non-representational,” a departure from the photojournalistic approach she started with. “Documentary style photography was not really adequate to tell their stories because it would seem like re-exploitation of the victims.”
In the Netherlands of 2009, Chernush worked with survivors of sex trafficking who suggested that she exhibit the work. “They felt very empowered. We ended up making a big outdoor exhibit in the main square of The Hague, in front of the Parliament.” This exhibition toured five Dutch cities, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
The exhibition was inspiring not only for those who had been victims of trafficking, but also the general public. “So I thought, ‘If photography can be that powerful, what about inviting other artists to contribute with their creative vision, to use their creative imagination to address this global problem?’” This was the origin of ArtWorks for Freedom as a nonprofit organization in the United States. It has become, in Chernush’s words, a “coalition of artist-activists committed to ending human trafficking and modern slavery.”
Since then Chernush and ArtWorks for Freedom have presented photography exhibits, films, plays, and dance performances. They have also aired the debate through roundtables and public walks in parks.
“This is a global problem; we have to act locally,” Chernush says when asked about the philosophy behind ArtWorks for Freedom. She explains that wherever ArtWorks for Freedom goes it seeks to work with local institutions to fulfill its mission.
What you see is not who I am is one of the projects born in this spirit of collaboration. Chernush heard about the Groundswell Community Mural Project in Brooklyn, New York, which offers mural painting workshops to at-risk teenagers. After giving a workshop on the subject, Chernush was thrilled to see the first sketches produced by these young artists, who at 17 or 18 began contributing to the fight against modern slavery. “We wanted them to think creatively and not in the cliché imagery that we see in the media,” Chernush emphasizes. The young artists created a twelve-panel mural featuring three themes: sex trafficking, domestic servitude, and farming exploitation. The mural is movable and can tour as an exhibition.
The work of these young artists gives testimony to their commitment to combat all forms of human trafficking. When the mural panels were finished, Dakota Storm Austin said “I have learned that there is a struggle in each and every corner of this earth. I have also learned that there are many people that have no clue about human trafficking, and I used to be one of them. While I was working with this group of outspoken and multi-talented artists I came to realize that it takes more than one voice to change the world. And it is not just in the actions of a vast group of people that can help solve a problem, but it is in the vast knowledge of the problem. In order to change something, you must know what it is that you are looking to change and educate those around you about it.”