Imagine your worst experience. How would you want your story told?

9 January 2020

By Joanna Ewart-James, Executive Director, Freedom United

We rely upon strong stories and eye-catching images when writing about modern slavery. Raising awareness of the issues and the prevalence of modern slavery is essential, but so often, as survivors of slavery tell us, the images and language used to tell these stories do not reflect them accurately or in a dignified way.

Too often we speak on behalf of survivors and sensationalise the experience of modern slavery today. That’s why Freedom United has published a series of videos in which survivors do the talking instead explaining why this issue is important to them and what they want you to do about it.

How does this translate to practice? Freedom United will be running workshops with photographer Jeremy Abrahams at the faith and anti-trafficking conference organised by the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds, giving participants practical skills on how to represent modern slavery with accuracy, respect and dignity.

These skills are relevant whether communications work is formal - through an NGO, or the media for example - or informal, such as on social media. Without a shift in popular messaging towards accuracy and empowerment, progress on ending modern slavery will inevitably be held back.

My Story, My Dignity was the first campaign launched under Freedom United. It began by calling on large media houses to show the importance of treating modern slavery survivors’ stories with dignity, by reviewing their style guides and ensuring they are aligned with guidance developed by survivors to set a standard for others to follow.

The four main tenets of My Story, My Dignity are as follows:

  1. Choose respectful images that are representative of the issue. Choose stock images carefully.

  2. Select text that accurately represents the story. Be careful to avoid sensationalist language.

  3. Respect survivors’ right to privacy and dignity.

  4. Obtain prior consent to using a personal story, be transparent and accurate about the process and how it will be used.

Sensationalist images and language can unintentionally create or reinforce stereotypes or negative prejudices undermining efforts to end modern slavery through the failure to identify victims and making survivors’ ability to recover even more challenging.

The media is just one place in which modern slavery is portrayed negatively. So Freedom United has since launched the My Story, My Dignity Pledge which individuals, organisations, companies and institutions, that publicly shares human trafficking and modern slavery information and cases, can sign up to. By adhering to the pledge, 34 organisations have committed to ensuring accurate and respectful representations. Together, we are building a movement that supports survivors and motivates action helping bring it to an end.

To show how Freedom United is actively contributing to disrupting unhelpful narratives around modern slavery, we have published our internal guidelines. These guidelines are steps that our team follows and have been approved by survivor-led organisation Survivor Alliance. We have included five sections in our guidelines that best address our responsibility to contribute to empowering narratives:

  • Visual

  • Language and definition of terms

  • Training

  • Events

  • Making our commitment public

Freedom United has made it our mission to help end disempowering and sensationalist language and imagery. It undermines the public’s understanding of what modern slavery really is, making the task of building an empowered community that knows how to get involved even more difficult.

We hope and encourage others to copy Freedom United’s guidelines, which we promote on our home page and in our emails. We hope that they inspire variations of these guidelines developed to fit the specific roles and responsibilities of different organisations.

There’s still room for improvement in the anti-slavery community when it comes to empowering representations of modern slavery but if we all develop clear guidelines on how we publish content, we can make fast progress.

Freedom United – content guidelines (PDF, 857KB)