* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 7
The girl in the photo is wearing tan stockings, black garter belt, elegant black heels and a wavy, floral see-through dress. Raising her left leg on the red sofa, she is pulling her dress up, revealing her upper thigh and underwear. She is seductive. She is sexy. She is confident and bold. None of these adjectives fits well with the story the photo illustrates: somewhere in the US a 17-year-old girl is arrested for trafficking an even younger girl and forcing her into prostitution. The trafficked girl was not beaten, nor chained, but psychologically coerced to do sex work. Yet somehow, the visual representation of human trafficking in the media continues to gravitate towards one of the two: salacious images of seductive sex workers or battered victims in utter desperation.
A reliable media picture of human trafficking and related risks can contribute to success in prevention of the crime and protection of trafficked persons. Therefore, questioning trafficking representations and whether or not they correspond to the reality of trafficking is of great importance. Bellow I analyse three most common visual tropes present in Serbian online media in stories on trafficking for sexual exploitation published between 2011 and 2014: the innocent victim, the unworthy prostitute and the slave.
The opposing representations of victims and prostitutes are not unknown in research on trafficking. The victim trope immobilises women in a position of hopelessness and removes their agency. The prostitution trope, on the other hand, relies on victim-blaming and eroticisation of their bodies. When shown as victims, women are either portrayed alone, which accentuates their dead-end position of despair, or as facing a violent attack from a male figure. In contrast, when depicted as unworthy prostitutes, women are provocatively dressed, salacious, and seductive.
The image of a trafficking survivor who is severely bruised or locked in a filthy basement does not correspond with the subtle means of control and psychological coercion that some traffickers use today. Oversimplified representation of trafficking for sexual exploitation is particularly dangerous because it encourages victim-blaming and negative attitudes towards sex workers and female sexuality in general. In addition, stereotypical representations of trafficked women reinforce cultural attitudes about behaviours women should not display if they wish to stay safe (e.g. migrate, accept job offers, work in the sex industry), and could foster climate in which not all trafficked persons are identified or seen as worthy of receiving assistance because they do not fit the stereotype of a helpless girl.
Significant number of photographs showed trafficked persons represented as slaves. These images abound in symbols such as filthy surroundings, chains, shackles and padlocks, whip marks, wounds and bruises, and, inevitably signs that mark people as goods, such as barcodes and price tags. Such symbols testify to the tendency to link human trafficking to slavery with the aim of harnessing the moral potential of the anti-slavery movement. The enslavement of Serbian women by foreign men is a common motif in Serbian folklore and is deeply rooted in the national consciousness. Folk poems reinforce the belief that women have inherent vulnerability to harms, are morally inferior, and are inclined to sin, as well as the idea that they need a male protector who will restore their and the national honour by saving them from the hands of the foreign abductor. In contemporary trafficking representations linked to slavery aesthetics, the issue of human trafficking is reduced to simplistic binaries of the free and the enslaved, us and them, the subjects and the objects, which further contributes to victims’ dehumanisation.
Photographs are too easily seen as transparent, unmediated, mechanical transcripts of reality. The analysis of representation of sexually exploited victims of trafficking suggests that these images tell us more about societal fears regarding security, ideas about gender, erotic obsessions and morality than about the phenomenon of human trafficking itself. Paying attention to what mediated photographs are saying about human trafficking is of great importance because the media have a significant role to play in preventing the crime, mobilising public support for action against it, and shaping the environment in which trafficked persons are to exercise their rights and recover. Furthermore, in order to represent the risks of exploitation in a credible way, stereotypes need to be deconstructed and moral panics replaced by realistic depictions of the trafficking phenomenon. Both media and academics studying it have much work to do to make sure the latter happens.
Elena Krsmanovic is a PhD candidate co-supervised by Utrecht University and University of Hamburg under the Doctorate in Cultural and Global Criminology Programme. Her research is focused on media representation of trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation in Serbia, UK and The Netherlands. Krsmanovic has academic background in media studies and has worked as a TV and radio journalist, and a public relations coordinator in an anti-trafficking organisation in Serbia.