Mimi Chakarova talks about how she gained the trust of the trafficked women and some of the choices she made in presenting their stories.
By Sachi Cunningham
You don’t identify many of the women in your piece. Was this because of the risk to them?
Yes, very much so. One of the reasons the sequence of images reveals so little information about the names and locations is that I did not want to endanger them. The names in the quotes are not pseudonyms, but not all images are paired with the corresponding quotes. I wanted the viewer to get inside the mind of a trafficked woman and to see the aftermath of the flesh trade without jeopardizing those who allowed me to photograph them.
Are you concerned that Olesea’s mom may see this piece?
No, only because I know the conditions that surround her. Olesea’s mom uses a telephone at a neighbor’s house to reach her daughter. Her link to the world is a small television that picks up only local channels and only on days when there is electricity. The chances of her - or others in her village - seeing this on the internet are slim to none.
Using a camera to report such a sensitive subject must be difficult. How did you go about gaining access and people’s trust?
Using a camera is often a great curse. As soon as the girls see it, they close up. I see it in their eyes. Most turn away immediately. The only way to gain trust is to give people the opportunity to form an opinion of whether they should tell you their stories. That requires time and patience. Before introducing the camera, I spent hours talking to them, walking around in their space, looking at family photos, listening to music on the radio, chatting about the dreams and aspirations they had when they were younger. By the time I asked for a photo, I knew their pain and my boundaries. What I received in return is a piece of their indignation and sadness.
What were some of the photos that you chose not to shoot, if any, and why?
I didn’t include photographs that revealed too much of their bodies or marks on them, such as cigarette burns and abrasions. I did not want any of them to be perceived as sexual objects or as victims. I was interested in their eyes and the deep emptiness caused by their trauma. I wanted people to see how young they are, yet how much they’ve seen.
You say that 200,000 women are trafficked from Moldova. Where did you get this number?
The numbers vary - most estimates are between 200,000 and 400,000 women, depending on the source. I used the lesser number, which is from the International Organization for Migration, because I know sometimes this data is exaggerated in order to give more significance to the funding of specific projects. That number also includes girls and women who’ve been trafficked for labor, exploited as maids and factory workers and so on.
Who funds the shelter that you visited?
The IOM [International Organization for Migration] funds the shelter for trafficked women in Moldova. It’s the only one in the country. The location is secret.
Women from Moldova are rumored to be the most beautiful in Europe. Do you know where and why this myth began?
I wish I had the answer to this question. It angers me because I’ve heard this so many times and have read this statement in numerous articles that “investigate” sex trafficking. Look at these photos and you will see who gets sold into this trade —ordinary girls, different shapes and sizes. A statement about women in Moldova should instead read: “Women from Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, are the most desperate in Europe. Unable to find work and provide food for their families, they seek ways to survive by risking going abroad. They know that many are trafficked and sold into prostitution, but they never believe it could happen to them because going abroad is their last resort.”
Perhaps in part because of this rumor, many of today’s fashion models are recruited from Moldova. Is this used as one of the tricks to recruit trafficked women?
I think there are many fashion models from Eastern Europe in general. I don’t believe Moldova is different fromthe Ukraine, Russia, Croatia, Bulgaria or Poland in that respect. As one man who frequents sex tourism Web sites puts it, “… they are rarely overweight - probably because of permanent stress and that food is expensive.”
Do any of the women who are trafficked and find their way back home educate other women about the trade?
Most young women never tell anyone about their ordeal. There is so much stigma and shame that once they return to their towns and villages, women try to erase these experiences from their minds. They often live in isolation. Those who do tell their families suffer the shame of having been a prostitute, even if forced. They are constantly reminded of their past. I remember Ana Revenko, the president of the NGO La Strada, saying: “It’s fancy to go abroad. It’s fancy to have been abroad. People have to go through this disease - to obtain these material things. We have to live through this until people realize their own mistakes. Sometimes I think the word ‘trafficking’ is a word used to name many social phenomena: violence, poverty, corruption, economic desperation. It’s like a bouquet of different factors.”
Did you meet or hear of any women that left Moldova to work in the sex industry of their own free will?
I do know of some who leave knowing that they will work as prostitutes. Even those who agree to sell their bodies are still considered to be trafficked into sex. They work to pay off their “debt” and are often resold multiple times. Most return home penniless, with the same clothes on their back as when they left Moldova.
Since 2001, the government of Moldova has done some work to help combat the trafficking in human beings, including adopting a National Plan of Action. The Moldovan constitution sentences sex traffickers to 10 to 20 years in prison, and in the case of injury or death, to life imprisonment. Did you see any evidence of this work while you were there?
I don’t know how to answer this question without bringing up the word “corruption.” Yes, some are in prison. Olesea’s pimp, who is Turkish, is serving a 10-year sentence in a Moldovan prison. But these cases are few and far between. Traffickers get arrested and a couple of months later are released - someone pulls some strings and pays the right amount and off they go, recruiting more women.
A survey of rescued Moldovan victims conducted by the IOM shows that more than half are trafficked by friends or acquaintances desperate to make money. Was this the case for the women you came to know?
Absolutely. Most were trafficked by neighbors, family acquaintances or boyfriends. In fact, most of the initial recruiters are women who flaunt their riches from abroad and offer young girls the promise of work in other countries.
Aside from sleeping pills, was there any help, such as psychological counseling, available to women in the shelter?
Yes, there is counseling, but there are only two psychologists working at the shelter. One of them - I will not use her real name - has treated 1,600 women in the last five years. The women don’t trust the psychological treatment. They can’t understand that the problem is in their heads and souls. Most are self-destructive. More than 50 percent cut themselves with whatever they find - broken glass, the top of a can, anything and everything. The more time a girl spends trafficked, the more negative is her attitude toward her body. She feels that she has no place on this earth.
Some of the women had children, presumably by clients. What was the relationship between these women and their children? Did they have hope for their futures?
Some were actually trafficked while pregnant. You can only imagine the psychological and physical trauma that they have suffered and how this affects their motherhood. Many already had children before going abroad. The women I spoke with say that their children back home were the only reason they did not kill themselves, the only reason for doing everything possible to escape.
In an interview you said, “To be successful, my photos must not only educate people, but motivate them to take action.” What sort of action do you hope people will take after watching this slideshow?
I hope that it will enable people to see this story from a different angle. I hope that the sadness it leaves will push people to find out more about what can be done. Sex trafficking is a very complex issue. If a girl graduates from college, she has aspirations, but there is no opportunity for her in Moldova as in many other Eastern European countries. What are her options?