How Photojournalists Cover Sexual Violence Against Women

By getting into the perpetrator’s head rather than focusing on the victim’s body, which is the more typical visual approach in photojournalism, I could tell stories of trafficking without placing a harmful, intrusive gaze on those who have already suffered greatly. And I decided to concentrate on cases in the United States because human trafficking is an under-reported story here, and many Americans imagine trafficking happens in faraway places. In addition, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and its reauthorization in 2013 changed the criminal justice landscape for the better, with laws that enable prosecutors to go after traffickers more aggressively and provide legal asylum to immigrant victims.

(A tip ledger in a forced labor case. Newark, N.J.Credit Nina Berman/Noor)

A tip ledger in a forced labor case. Newark, N.J.

I offer this work now as an example of a different way of seeing after the photojournalism industry’s most recent ethical scandal, this time involving a U.K. photographer Souvid Datta, who built a name for himself photographing scenes inside Kolkata brothels. Mr. Datta, a rising star, had made a picture of a trafficked 16-year-old girl, whom he called “Beauty,” and showed her in bed with a man on top of her committing rape. In his quest to capture the victim’s facial expression — to better reveal her pain, he said — he stood over the rapist, which added another dimension of domination to the image.

He entered this picture in the Magnum Photography Awards 2017 contest run by Lens Culture, a popular pay-to-play offer that promises emerging photographers, who pay an entry fee of up to $60, exposure to industry professionals. Lens Culture used the image on its social media platforms to promote the contest, which outraged members of the photojournalism community. Lens Culture offered a mea culpa and removed the post and the image.

But incredibly, it wasn’t the depiction of underage rape that destroyed Mr. Datta’s career.

Rather, it was revealed that Mr. Datta had previously inserted a face from one of Mary Ellen Mark’s Mumbai brothels series into his own work. This transgression and other acts of plagiarism, which he explained away as ethical lapses by an inexperienced journalist, caused widespread outrage and sent his previous patrons — the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, the Alexia Foundation, and Magnum, among them — scrambling to distance themselves.

But now a few voices are asking broader questions about representation and why Mr. Datta’s work and approach were so appealing in the first place. Why are stories of vulnerable and suffering women and girls, often with pleading or blank expressions and seen in faraway lands, praised and rewarded by American and European grant makers, portfolio reviewers and editors? Is there another way to tell stories of important issues of human trafficking, forced labor, and sexual violence without focusing on the bodies of vulnerable women?

For several months I pored through Department of Justice files, spoke to federal and state prosecutors, victim advocates, survivors, and Homeland Security agents to find cases of trafficking and forced labor where perpetrators were convicted at trial. Most cases never reach this stage. Felons take a plea, and the evidence is never made public.

The work was tedious and frustrating. Sometimes I would find a prosecutor willing to talk, only to learn that the evidence was destroyed once the case was closed. Several months of research allowed me a short time inside various conference rooms where I photographed a rubber mallet used by Donell Baines to clobber women in Manhattan; a ledger where girls trafficked from Togo logged their tips while slaving in braiding salons in Newark and East Orange, N.J. On its cover was the Statue of Liberty.

 (A crime scene in a sex trafficking case. Memphis, Tenn.Credit Nina Berman/Noor)

A crime scene in a sex trafficking case. Memphis, Tenn.

In Pound Ridge, N.Y., I found Joseph Yannai’s shabby computer, wrapped in evidence tape, with dust and fingerprints on the screen. Mr. Yannai, a food writer, assumed a fictional female persona online to lure unsuspecting foreign women to work as editorial assistants out of his home. Once there, he terrorized them and forced them to do his sexual bidding. He claimed he was “a dirty old man,” but otherwise innocent. He was sentenced to 11 years.

In Chicago, I photographed a weapon along with the jewelry line of Alex Campbell, the first trafficker to receive life in prison. He fashioned himself a cowboy and created a horseshoe logo which he tattooed onto his victims. It’s not uncommon for sexual traffickers to brand their victims — sometimes even tattooing bar codes into their skin, much in the same way plantation owners in the Antebellum South branded enslaved African-Americans to track their human inventory.

These crimes are characterized by violence, fear, intimidation and psychological manipulation, which is also revealed in texts recovered as evidence. These are the rules of labor which traffickers force captives to write: “If I tell you something more than 2 times, you will take a swim and meet Newport,” meaning the trafficker will pour scalding water on the woman and burn her with cigarettes. The F.B.I.’s Memphis office had pictures of the scars.

One of the most revealing pictures in the series was one I did not make. It was given to me by an Assistant United States Attorney and shows a family of four against a blue background. The father has his arms around his wife on one side and his daughter on the other. Another daughter, much smaller, is placed front and center. All their eyes are covered with black strips, which the prosecutor added to the photograph to protect their family’s identity. The oldest daughter had been trafficked from Mexico to Tennessee where she was repeatedly raped. Bravely, she testified against her captors and received a special visa for trafficking victims.

Please click on the link below to see the slideshow of Nina Berman’s works on Modern Day Slavery.

Nina Berman’s work was funded by a grant from Lexis Nexus as part of the NOOR Project on Modern Day Slavery. She is an associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


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