For over a year, award-winning photographer and PWB storyteller, Matilde Simas, has been travelling the world, showcasing "Faces Behind Atrocity," a portrait series she shot in Kenya. Now, Simas is taking her photos to Biddeford, Maine, with the hopes of shedding some light on the human trafficking epidemic taking place in her own backyard.
"I want people to understand human trafficking isn’t just an issue for developing countries," said Simas as she prepares for the opening reception of her exhibit.
The dominant Western image of trafficking survivors is of “a young Brown, Asian, or Black women," an image that is refracted through mainstream media, as researcher Ratna Kapur once wrote. Within the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) opened 833 investigations in 2017 possibly involving human trafficking. As well, in the same year, the DHS convicted 499 traffickers, a majority of which involved predominantly sex trafficking. Other estimates find a total of over 100,000 survivors in the United States at any given time. However, the assumption remains that trafficking is a problem that happens “over there.”
The new exhibit, hosted by Engine: Propelling the Creative Community, will run from January 9th- February 15th as part of the National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
In 2017, Simas travelled to Kenya with Photographers Without Borders to capture the work of HAART Kenya, a local grassroots organization working to eradicate trafficking and support survivors within their community. Simas' photo series, "Faces Behind Atrocity," went on to win several international awards, including the coveted Lucie Foundation Social Cause International Photography Award. Her experience in Kenya was also featured in PWB's award-winning film "Survivor”.
But Simas' introduction to the terrors of human trafficking began in 2014 when she spent four weeks in Myanmar. There, she met 196 children living at a nunnery, left there by their parents to escape the conflicts of war, and possible slavery or forced marriages. When Simas returned home, she spent a lot of time researching articles on human trafficking through the U.S. State Department website.
Here, she was introduced to photojournalist Kay Chernush, who would become a mentor to Simas, advising her on how to best photograph such a sensitive global issue. ”Don’t wait for an assignment. If you really want to make a difference go out and shoot it and share it,” Chernush once said to Simas. Advice she would carry with her for another two years.
Simas kept reading, opening herself up to a variety of perspectives and understandings of human trafficking. But no amount of research, she explained, could have given Simas the same amount of insight as to when she travelled to Kenya on assignment with PWB.
"Faces Behind Atrocity" has roots in Nairobi, and initially involved seven young women Simas met there, all of different nationalities and ranging in age from 13 to 16 years old. Each image accompanied by a survivor’s story. "Their stories were heartbreaking and their experiences unimaginable. I felt compelled to bring more attention to this horrific practice".
But Simas is not finished with the project. She is now working with human trafficking organization Just Love Worldwide, located in Westbrook, Maine, and is incorporating U.S. trafficking stories into the series. One such story follows survivor Cary Stuart. Stuart grew up in Portland Maine, and after an abusive childhood spent several years in and out of youth centers. At the age of 19, she was lured into the life of sex trafficking "on the false promises of love and security," said Simas. Stuart would spend the next 11 years in isolation, often beaten and drugged, and forced sell herself to meet quotas set by her pimps. With the support of organizations like Just Love, Hope Rising and the FBI Special Victims Unit, Stuart now has a new identity – as a mother, a fiancée, survivor and advocate.
The upcoming exhibition will include both stories from Kenya and the U.S., including Stuart's. "The exhibition in Maine is a result of a growing concerned community. Behind Maine’s beautiful rocky coastline, seafood shacks, and vacation homes lies a sinister secret," said Simas.
According to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, sex trafficking operations capture an estimated 200 to 300 victims every year. Simas explains that the state has been slow to respond to the growing problem, and while new, harsher penalties for traffickers have been introduced, there is still much room for improvement when it comes to training and survivor rehabilitation and support.
"Survivors emerging from the hold of commercial sex trafficking and sexual exploitation – both in Maine and beyond – face a multitude of complex challenges, including PTSD, dissociation, addiction, and mental illness," Simas explains.
Simas hopes that, through sharing the experiences of survivors, visitors of the exhibit are moved to have conversations about human trafficking, and continue to bring the problem to light. She encourages everyone to use social media as a tool to raise awareness of trafficking, but also show support for fair trade businesses.
"We need to recognize that every choice we make has implications that reverberate around the world. How we dress, what we eat, where we shop are all ethical choices that should be informed".
Simas' greatest hope, in the long run, is that when people to talk about her work, they speak of the impact it had on inspiring action to end modern-day slavery.
"If we want to live in a world where every person is free, we must get to know the problems that challenge freedom. We have to know what it looks like, where it’s found, and its consequences. The Faces Behind Atrocity exhibit is working to do just that."
The opening reception for "Faces Behind Atrocity" is being held January 12th from 3 pm- to 5 pm EST. Click here for more information on the event, and the co-hosts, Engine and Heart of Biddeford.
For more information on Matilde Simas, and her complete photo series, click here.