Troubling Anti-Trafficking Imagery

20 June 2018

Anti-trafficking imagery is designed to be troubling and arresting. Images used in anti-modern slavery campaigns and communications are hugely dominated by depictions of chains or ropes, or people with exposed flesh and marked skin. Dominant anti-trafficking images too often objectify and victimise the people the organisations using them seek to support.

This risks ‘secondary exploitation’ that corrodes the humanity and agency of people exiting exploitative practices. What are the consequences of the anti-trafficking sector continuing to use images that frequently offer an unrealistic and sensationalist visualisation of modern slavery? Could this contribute to undermining efforts to ‘end modern slavery’ by directing attention away from complex causes?

We are excited to announce that we have been successful in securing funding from the University of Sheffield’s vibrant Festival of the Mind to work with photographer Jeremy Abrahams and three organisations that support people exiting exploitation - Ashiana, City Hearts and Snowdrop. The ‘Troubling Anti-Trafficking Imagery’ project will take on the challenge to produce a collection of alternative anti-trafficking images. These will be exhibited during the Festival of the Mind in Sheffield, 20-30 September 2018. The project partners met in May 2018 to establish core principles for the work and to develop concepts for the images.

A number of ethical guidance documents for the use of images in anti-trafficking exist. There is a guide produced by NGOs Chab Dai, Liberty Asia and Freedom Collective on the use of ‘victims’ in images. The Ethical Journalism Network has produced guidelines on Media and Trafficking in Human Beings that suggests avoiding images that contain explicit violence, are sexualised, or use a cliché.

An important discussion point in the project so far has been about also querying the depiction of happiness and success in post-trafficking images. Just as images of chains and ropes do not reflect the complexity of coercion in contemporary forms of severe exploitation and unfreedom, depicting those who have exited from exploitation as unquestionably positive promotes the moral legitimisation of the ‘rescue industry’. At the same time, exiting a situation of severe exploitation is often the start of a long and difficult journey to secure basic rights to residence, welfare or decent work - not the end point.