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‘How do I know she’s being forced?’: New exhibit reveals the dark underbelly of human trafficking

Where does human trafficking take place? In Russia, China, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and… all over the United States. Labor trafficking occurs in elder care, nail salons, babysitting. Sex trafficking is happening to runaway teens, an issue highlighted earlier this year after the Washington D.C. Police Department began posting images of D.C.’s missing girls online.

According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, some 57,700 citizens and immigrants in America are victims of human trafficking. Around the world, some 45.8 million people are affected.

Now, Kay Chernush, a photojournalist who captured victims of human trafficking for the U.S. State Department, is trying to change that, by blanketing Washington D.C. with photographs, drawings, essays, theater, film screenings, panel discussions and more on the realities of human trafficking today. Her nonprofit, ArtWorks for Freedom, which seeks to fight human trafficking through art, has previously shown work in the Netherlands, Singapore, Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin.

“NGOs already know about this problem. So we’re interested in taking it to the girl on her bike, the mother taking her child to the park, the guy with his dog,” Chernush said. “We’re trying to catch people and give them an entry point to this very dark subject, so that they’re bowled over by the art in a visceral way — so that people can taken their own creative actions to fight it.”

Passersby stop at the ArtWorks for Freedom exhibit "Bought and Sold" in Dupont Circle, Washington D.C., in October 2017.

A woman stops to look at an image in the ArtWorks for Freedom exhibit “Bought and Sold” in Dupont Circle in Washington D.C., in October 2017. Courtesy of Kay Chernush / ArtWorks for Freedom

On a recent Friday in D.C.’s Dupont Circle, where ArtWorks for Freedom had set up “Bought and Sold,” an outdoor exhibit of more than a dozen images depicting victims of and participants in human trafficking, passersby stopped and somberly took in the work.

One image showed an American woman who was trafficked at age 13 from Washington D.C. to New York; in an accompanying caption, she described being held by “mental chains that were just as thick and heavy as any metal chain would have been.” Another depicted a Brazilian woman trafficked to Surinam and then a club in the Netherlands, where she said she was “forced to go with a certain number of men everyday — keep them happy, keep them drinking.” And a third image quoted a sex tourist in Thailand, who, after being photographed by Chernush, asked: “Why do you care if older men are with younger women?… How do I know she’s being forced?”

Jennifer Barton, a Maryland resident who passed by the exhibit on her way to the bank, and stopped to read all of them, said seeing the images and accompanying stories was humbling. “You know these things happen, you watch Law & Order on TV,” she said. “But just to the read the stories about how it happens is very different. To read how people from different countries were deceived.”

Credit: Kay Chernush

Credit: Kay Chernush

The exhibit also gives voice to victims of labor trafficking, which make up the majority of human trafficking cases. One image depicts a Central American migrant trafficked to the U.S., who said he was forced to work 11 or 12 hour days, live in a shack, and paid poorly for the work.

“People want their food cheap. Without people willing to pay a fair price for their food, will there ever be fair working conditions?” he said.

The images in “Bought and Sold” are photo collages, instead of traditional portraits, which Chernush said she hoped would reveal more about what human trafficking was actually like. She made the images in collaboration with human trafficking survivors.

“People may be bruised or battered but that doesn’t say much about what trafficking is,” she said. “That people are underage and exploited and sold on the streets…. That it’s all around us, not hidden, but we don’t know what to look for… That if a man buys sex he doesn’t know if that person is there of their own volition. And that it’s happening in the U.S. as well.”

Credit: Kay Chernush

Credit: Kay Chernush

“Bought and Sold” is on display in Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle until October 20, and the ArtWorks for Freedom events continue until November 10. The exhibits will then travel elsewhere in the United States.

WATCH MORE: After viral story on DC girls, understanding the real perils for missing children of color

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