Art can help solve the problem of slavery and trafficking. Or so thinks Kay Chernush. This photographer started the non-profit ArtWorks for Freedom, which does exhibits and performances around the world.
ArtWorks for Freedom started with a big exhibition in the Netherlands that travelled to five cities and was seen by some 300,000 people. Now it's mounting an exhibition in Singapore this summer, which is slated to come to the U.S. in 2013.
Originally hired to document the issue of trafficking for the U.S. State Department and NGOs, veteran photographer Chernush says, “I felt constrained by the documentary style of photography.” Instead, she devised a non-representational, innovative approach to make compelling images about things you can’t show but that convey the ugly truths. She didn’t set out to start a 501c3, but felt compelled after time.
Photographing sex workers on the street, she realized, doesn’t tell you what brought the person to that place. Plus she doesn’t know if the person was trafficked, nor can she approach them without danger. It seemed wrong ethically. “I am re-exploiting them, making them raped by their own past, so they can never get beyond it,” she said. Even photos of bruises don’t tell the whole story, nor do they express the experience of being trafficked.
“We’re inundated with photography of wretchedness, we’ve become numb to pictures of distressed people in impoverished circumstances," she said. "We look and say, ‘how terrible’ and then think about what’s for dinner.”
So Chernush found a new way: she does a formal portrait session with the survivor, interviews them and gives them the resulting images. “I use the power of photography to show them that they are beautiful and worthy and that they count,” she said. From these survivor stories, Chernush creates powerful non-documentary images often using the survivor's own words.
“You have a beautiful surface, and then to slowly realize the horror of what it’s really about.That creates a tension and through that tension, I want people to explore their own ideas about trafficking and powerlessness and violence,” she says. Now Chernush is starting to add sound portraits, which will be accessible through a smart phone tour.
4x virgin:"I was ten when she sold me. After first time, they stitch you up--two, three, four times."
ArtWorks for Freedom’s mission is to harness the power of art to change attitudes, build awareness, inspire activism, and give survivors a voice. Chernush says, “We shine a hot light on trafficking through different arts events, dance, theatre, multimedia, or poetry slams.” Last year in DC, she organized several performances with dance and music which incorporated her photos.
ArtWorks for Freedom is designed to serve as a focal point and catalyst for other events. For example, in Singapore there will be an exhibition of art by survivors -- with three survivor quilts. Chernush imagines the possibility of incorporating art therapy in partnership with NGOs.
She says, “We’re trying to raise awareness about this great crime against humanity, but also do capacity building for NGOs.” She also hopes to partner with more groups in different countries, as she has in Singapore, where she teamed up with EmancipAsia for their 8-week trafficking awareness campaign. Ultimately, Chernush hopes to attract sponsors so that they can bring the works to more and more cities.
“I feel that art has power to transform and create change. It’s to me unacceptable that slavery exists in this day and age. It's the biggest human rights issues of our times.”
behind closed doors:"24/7, taking care of the household, the children. Never allowed to go out. I was their slave."
day's work: "I remember every client, every face. It is like a horror movie."
images copyright Kay Chernush used with permission