Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
February 16, 2015

Human Trafficking Awareness and Photographic Ensnarement: A World Press Winning Portrait

The crime of human trafficking is one that robs its victims of personal agency. Liu Song’s depiction of an accused sex worker in China (which won 2nd prize in the Portrait Singles category of the 2015 World Press Photo contest) illustrates the extent to which victims of human trafficking are subjected to cycles of re-victimization.

Both U.S. and international definitions of human trafficking state that if an adult is induced to engage in commercial sex through force, fraud, or coercion, they are victims of human trafficking. Minors (who lack the legal power to consent to sex) who engage in commercial sex are considered trafficking victims even if force, fraud, or coercion cannot be established. Despite the fact that this standard has been broadly accepted by governments and enforcement agencies, trafficking victims are routinely treated as criminals. The U.S. Department of State’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report notes that in the time-frame included in the most recent report, the Chinese government “arrested a significant number of women in police raids on prostitution rings; it was unclear whether the government screened these women for indicators of trafficking, whether potential trafficking victims were referred to shelters, or whether potential victims were punished for acts committed as a direct result of being trafficking victims.”

Although we do not know the particular status of the individual depicted in this photograph, if she is a trafficking victim, she is not faring much better in police custody than she likely did prior to arrest. In both contexts, her personal agency is constrained. The positioning of the chair’s ankle restraints forces the subject to sit with her legs stretched—a compromising and uncomfortable position for someone wearing a short skirt. Her bowed head obscures her identity, but it also communicates the shame brought on by her (now) public incarceration. What Song’s photo documents, then, is the ways in which trafficking victims are repeatedly siphoned through public and private structures designed to curtail their free will. To the extent that Song’s photograph calls attention to China’s persistent mistreatment of trafficking victims, it contributes to the awareness-raising efforts that have put needed international pressure on Chinese officials to recognize and respond to the problem of trafficking within their borders.

Despite the photo’s potential utility, however, it also raises important questions about the ways in which well-meaning outsiders and journalists depict the problem of human trafficking. The subject’s posture in the photograph suggests that she is as unwilling a participant in this exchange as she likely was in the one that landed her in custody. Although Song’s photo was taken at a police station in Chongqing, it invokes stereotypes about how trafficking victims are treated by traffickers—a young woman (girl?) held in a dank room is forcibly shackled and left on display. This time, however, it’s not an internet porn site that is profiting from her positioning as an object—it is the international photojournalistic community. “Capture” is a metaphor commonly employed to describe the photographic process that fixes an image and makes it available for display. Although trafficking victims are rarely captured in the style made (in)famous by the (terrible) Taken movie franchise, they are psychologically and legally detained by both pimps and police officers. Photographic ensnarement is yet another indignity.

~ Karrin Anderson | @KVAnderson

(photo: Liu Song/2nd Prize Single Portraits, 2015 World Press Photo Awards. World Press Caption: “ACCUSED. 06 May 2014, Chongqing, China. A woman suspected of engaging in illegal sex trade is held for questioning at a police station.)

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