It’s not their own fault

Slavery is everywhere. I came across the photo exhibition Disposable People: Contemporary Global Slavery, by accident at the London Southbank centre. It’s a really good way of raising awareness, but I do find the juxtaposition of images like these with cheerful weekend café chat a little odd. A mouthful of unimaginable conscience-provoking reality, a mouthful of (at least it’s Fairtrade) tea…

Child labour in Haiti, maids and nannies in Singapore, slaves in Sudan, trafficked workers from Ukraine. The images and words of this last are very familiar to me. Alongside photographer Jim Goldberg’s pictures from East Ukraine – concrete tower blocks, grassy roadsides littered with rubbish and used syringes – are scrawled accounts written by the women and men who’ve been trafficked. Their brief stories of life abroad are cramped onto small Polaroids where text and image overlap almost unreadably, while the accompanying photographs of the places they left behind are huge, spacious and largely empty – a flock of crows, a couple of small figures in a big landscape. Why this contrast? I wonder if it is meant to emphasize that what may seem an opportunity to find freedom in the wide world is in fact a trap – so many trafficked workers find themselves confined to a bar, a bedroom, a building site, a prison cell.

Goldberg’s trafficked workers are all faceless, in contrast to much of the rest of the exhibition, where many photographs are portraits. It’s a reminder that to the traffickers and consumers of trafficked labour, these are not individuals, they are commodities. But I wonder if it was the subjects’ own wish to remain anonymous, and it seems sadly indicative of a lack of self-esteem or even self-hatred. The Korean ‘comfort women’ who have been brave enough to speak out about their experiences as sex slaves in the Second World War appear in huge, dignified black-and-white portraits. None of what happened to them is their own fault. While running through the scrawled Ukrainian accounts of being tricked and exploited, what I picked up is a terrible sense of shame.

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