The other day, I read Skin Trade Exposed, Harry van Versendaal’s (@denk_ik) interview with Bulgarian photographer, film-maker, lecturer and investigative journalist Mimi Chakarova. It’s a great interview, covering how Chakarova does and presents her research, and why; and how she relates with the women involved (she objects to the term ‘subject’). (Elsewhere, she’s given a talk on going undercover; and there’s a website for the project, the Price of Sex.)
I have not really addressed people trafficking and sex slavery in my work. (On my old personal blog, I discussed sex, labour, exploitation and slavery; and Cyprus’s functioning as a transit point and destination for thousands of trafficked women every year. On my old research blog, and in an ultimately-unused draft of my PhD thesis, I noted that the same gangs ran the trades in women and antiquities; but I didn’t explore the issue.) Nevertheless, the interview reminded me of a moment in my own fieldwork.
(At some point, I’m going to write up my fieldwork experiences properly. Right now, the bare facts will suffice.)
Exploring what I thought were abandoned buildings in Karavostasi/Gemikonağı (in Cyprus), I took this photograph, then turned to check out the building immediately to my left (out-of-shot, but casting a shadow over the bottom left corner).
What I found were four slim, young, blonde women resting on dirty mattresses on the floor. Obviously, I’d seen prostitutes on the street before. I’d also stayed in hotels where prostitutes took their clients; and seen documentaries about the worst end of the sex trade. But it was still awful to see their living and working conditions with my own eyes. The brief conversation with their pimp/master only made it worse.
I would like to say that the experience stayed with me because it embodied the connections between conflict, cultural decay/destruction and organised crime. I have to say, however, that the event stayed with me because of (horror and) guilt: first, guilt for not being able to do anything; and second, guilt for not trying to do something.