Dana Popa did a brave thing. She took her talent for photography and used it to expose an illegal trade, a predominantly hidden industry which depends on selling women for profit. Now an internationally recognised problem, sex trafficking is often compared to the slave trade in its vulgarity and severity and yet there is still a lot to be done to alleviate the problem and get to the point of convicting these criminals and protecting women worldwide. I was interested in Dana’s experience in meeting these survivors and also her thoughts on the difference she believes photography can make to situations like these.
Dana Popa is a Romanian photographer based in London. Her series not Natasha has received international acclaim, including Amnesty International, Foto8, FOAM, BJP and Portfolio magazine.
The book not Natasha was published by Autograph ABP in 2009. Presented like a notebook or journal of these women’s experiences it creates a personal interaction with the subject matter and the reader in a poignant and hard hitting manner.
What brought you to the point of doing a series on women who have been trafficked?
“What triggered my work was purely finding out what sex trafficking really means. At the time there was not much visual coverage of the illegal trade. Sex trafficking is the most profitable illegal business since the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union; it’s a form of violence against women from my society. Little do people realise what this illegal trade is and how big and profitable it has become.
“So I decided to try and get a closer look at sex trafficking and record what it means for the women to survive sexual slavery. I chose to have a glimpse of their souls – which at the time seemed very difficult to do, but that is what I was most interested in. After having heard their stories, I wanted to look at their traces – at what women who had disappeared for years and who are believed to be trafficked and sexually enslaved leave behind. This became an essential angle and part of the narrative.
“After being involved with this project I realised that its beginnings might have been triggered by my interest and knowledge of the woman’s position in societies like the one I was born in. I acknowledge this story as a way of standing up against the societies that know what happens to their women and hide it without even doing anything about it.”
Did you find it difficult to get access and how did you navigate this?
“Getting access was the hardest aspect and most frustrating part all along the years I made this work. I worked a lot to establish all sorts of connections with NGOs fighting sex trafficking in different countries. I received less than half of the help I needed to make the story. The rest I had to do myself, which was difficult and took a long time. During the first year I worked with two local NGOs in Moldova, IOM Moldova and Winrock International. Later on, I worked with the Police in London and I also went on my own into Turkey.
“The women accepted me in their lives, some for three weeks, some only for a few hours, depending on where I would meet them. I had to be both discreet and protective, respectful to their wishes, and always asking for their consent. It was not hard to explain the reasons of my work. The social workers allowed me to visit some of the women who survived trafficking and were now living back in their homes, or wherever they returned to.
“The most pleasant part of the learning process was when I spent time at one of the shelters that offered them psychological assistance and accommodation for a month or so. I had spent 2 weeks with girls that had just escaped sexual slavery. They were spinning stories about their ordeals every evening. This is what actually helped me frame the story and urged me to continue it at a later stage.”
What impact did the project have on you as a woman/person?
“I am not sure it had such a strong impact on me as a woman/person on a long term. It rather opened my eyes on the type of issues I feel it is important to make work on. It became clear my interests lie within subjects concerning women and human rights. Whilst making the project, the girls’ confessions about the torture they went through brought me so close to their ordeal and shocked me at the beginning. Their words stayed with me, and they are very much an important part of the book I made. It’s their voice, and bringing their voice close to the audience that matters to me.”
Your background in photojournalism seems paramount in training you to face tough situations and difficult scenarios, what was the best advice you received and held onto for this series?
“I don’t think I received any advice regarding this series as I did not tell anyone I was working on it until I started editing it. In general one of the best pieces of advice that I had received in regards to portraying survivors was to approach them with respect, to firstly see and show their humanity and dignity through my photography. Also, to have patience, something that I needed a lot in this long term and slow making project.”
Although the series is journalistic in style (real life events, personal stories, raising awareness etc) it also covers a fine art approach in the style of images (with a blend of subtle imagery such as a covered pram, juxtaposed with writing and shown alongside more narrative pieces). I sense that photographic genres are overlapping more than ever. Bearing this in mind, how did you view the final edit? What were your aims in putting this work together?
“I usually work in a very intuitive way and the pictures and editing are not a result of a deep introspection. This work was no exception. Of course I have a photojournalistic background which probably shapes my style but on the other hand what I really want to capture in a picture is not what’s directly visible in it. So I think that’s why you can see the work has an artistic approach. At the time I was definitely not aware of any overlapping trend, even though I agree that it is quite obvious these days.”
How do you feel art-based photography and photo-journalism can best compliment each other?
“I think there has been beautifully complex (in the way you are suggesting) photography since the very beginning. I feel tempted to say that perhaps now there is that type of analysis but the overlapping has always been there. Like I was saying, I never realised I could be an example of such; I just photograph. To me photography is not only about capturing a fragment of visible reality. One could even say that that is actually impossible and in a frame there are always several dimensions of a reality, even in studio photography.”
What impact do you think photography can have in helping actual change happen for people such as these?
“Actual change… It’s a bit late to talk about change in the case of the ones who had been sold into sexual slavery (except if you consider that the images helped raised funds for the NGO to continue offering them support). But on the other hand being involved in a project like this can be used as therapy for the survivors and I hope it was a positive thing for the girls I photographed.
“Of course the impact photography can have is significant, in making us all shocked by the reality that’s happening much closer to what we might think. But it would be more effective if for instance police had real funds to tackle the issue and the reality is that lots of those funds have been in the recent years cut down.”
What change has not Natasha made to the best of your knowledge?
“Well, it has raised awareness in a fantastic way worldwide and it raised funds to go to the NGOs who work with the survivors as well as to prevent other people being trafficked. I was investigating a hidden reality: the underground world of trafficking with the severe implications it has on the survivors of sexual slavery; only the fact we now talk about it and the audience can be aware of this reality is a huge step in the direction of the change we all want to happen.”
‘The pimp tried to induce an abortion by administering pills, but it did not work. So I was carrying a dead fetus in my womb for two months. I was still forced to do three, four clients a day. Only the thought of my baby daughter back home stopped me from taking my own life…’—Dalia
What did the girls think of the final product and are you still in touch?
“I am still in touch with a few of the women I met in this journey and in more often contact with a couple of them. As a reaction, they were interested to see my work. One of them decided to help me continue my visual work on sex trafficking as much as she could and another one looked on the book dummy with curiosity since she had been very much part of the project both as a survivor and a great help in translating and making the liasion with other girls at the shelter. When she reached the end of the book, she closed it and said: ‘Ok, from now on, we won’t be talking about this anymore.’ We still keep in touch.”