How did collaborating with a nongovernmental organization (NGO), Free the Slaves, inform the images you took for your book, Slavery? About a decade ago, I had been invited to be the sole exhibitor at the Vancouver Peace Summit, attended by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other Nobel laureates. It was there that I really began learning about slavery from a supporter of Free the Slaves.
I had known that sex trafficking and trafficking in the textile trade existed. But I had no idea that at the time, an estimated 27 million people were enslaved. Today, that number has grown to 46 million. When I first learned about modern slavery, I felt like I’d been hit by a freight train. I was so disturbed that I flew down to Los Angeles to meet with the executive director and cofounder of Free the Slaves and offer my help. It was through Free the Slaves, along with its international partners, that I was first initiated on my journey.
For the last 30 years, I’ve documented humanity in more than 100 countries on six continents. I do so with a notion of inspiring unity. What would the world be like if, instead of reacting to differences with fear, we did so with curiosity and wonder?
There’s so much talk about analog versus digital. Image making is image making.”
What do you consider to be your greatest ethical responsibility as a photographer? I have put a lot of thought into taking images of people who are enslaved, in concern for their safety. By sharing people’s plights, we may actually be able to do something about eradicating slavery. I still feel and see this to be true. Equally, I am not interested in photographing the horror of someone’s life—there are photographers and photographs that do this. What I am interested in is documenting people’s dignity. Whether someone is enslaved or free, we all have our dignity, and we all have fire in our hearts. Gandhi once said: “They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body, but not my obedience.”
When you’re taking portraits, how do you approach and work with subjects? The vast majority of my work, documenting indigenous people vulnerable to change, has allowed me the space and time to use a beautiful four-by-five traditional view camera. I use big sheets of transparency film, and the process is very slow and methodical. However, once I decided to document slavery around the world, it made sense to begin working with a 35-mm camera, which allows me to be agile if I need to get out of a situation quickly.
Working on the front lines of any situation is a volatile, sensitive experience. Certainly in the case of documenting modern-day slavery, I stick to the rule of allowing people to be who they are. I don’t want to interfere or cause any disruptions to their forced labor, as that could be very dangerous for them. When I am in the field, I also bring big bunches of candles with me. When it is safe, I very quickly take portraits of subjects holding a candle, shining a light on their stories in the hope that viewers who later see these portraits will help them.
What challenges did you overcome to document modern-day slavery for your new book, Bound to Freedom: Slavery to Liberation? After I flew into each area or country, I would be met by undercover abolitionists who are trusted by the community. They were my guardians, my translators, and I have deep, enduring respect for them. When we went into a situation, there would usually be four or five abolitionists with me. One would stay close to me while I worked, as I’m very focused when I’m taking photos. The others would be on the perimeters of an area. They worked with hand signs to alert one another of anyone approaching. Since I was working on the ground with abolitionists who are very familiar with those who are enslaved, I had built-in trust with subjects. That whole body of work, which took years to complete, was made in spurts of ten to fifteen minutes at a time because of the danger of the situations.
I knew when I took on this project that there would be dangers involved. But making this body of work never felt like a choice to me—it felt like a calling. So, whenever fear came up, I would quickly let it go because I believe that fear can be sensed—and I cannot afford that in the field.
What are your concerns about the impact that technology has had on the photography industry? There’s so much talk about analog versus digital. Image making is image making. I enjoy the methodical approach to making an image on film, but the digital approach has its own voice, too. Once one has the technical down, either approach becomes a simple means to an end.
We have a tendency to be afraid of change, but later embrace it. Think of the fear of trains in the 1800s. The Stockton and Darlington Railway opened in 1825, and people were afraid that the human body wasn’t made to travel at the incredible speed of thirty miles an hour. And the introduction of the telephone wasn’t exactly greeted with universal enthusiasm. Some people were afraid to even touch it because they thought it might give them electric shocks, and some preachers said that it was an instrument of the devil—well, maybe just telemarketing! The one thing that we can surely count on, though, is that technology will always be changing and growing. Life moves forward, and it’s completely fine to move forward with it.
What do you think the role of photography is in today’s “post-truth” era? There has been so much falsity lately in the news and politics. Even documented evidence has been denied by those in power. Nowadays, the notion of photography as a truth-revealing mechanism could be dismantled quite easily, our perceptions manipulated and so on. But I still believe in the photograph. I think of photographs as having power—a photograph is worth 1,000 words. It’s a soundless voice that can speak the truth to the masses and those in power where other voices fail.
How can photographers realistically finance long-term projects that address global issues? When I first started documenting some thirty years ago, I saved all my pennies to be able to travel to take photographs. When people started buying my work, I was remarkably pleased and surprised that I had recognized that photography could indeed be a profession. I have always financed my projects internally, with the sales of my photographs. So my advice to photographers is to begin wherever you may be on your path. One of my favorite slogans is from Nike: “just do it.” Create ideas and photographs, share them, collaborate—each action leads to the next. Then a small seed starts to grow, and projects become living parts of your life.