Image Above: ©Kay Chernush (Self-Portrait)
ANDREA BLANCH: Do you think sex trafficking can be brought to an end through legislation? Why or why not?
KAY CHERNUSH: You need to make a distinction between trafficking and prostitution. Laws can definitely be changed so that sex trafficking, if not totally eradicated, can be vastly reduced. Ultimately, it can be eradicated but there are laws in this country that need to be changed. Congress just passed a law that will make some inroads with that. For example, in New York, Carolyn Maloney is very active in the space, and other senators and congressmen have put forward new legislation to try and make sure that victims are treated not as criminals, but as victims, and that help is provided. The trick is to get funding for those laws once they are passed, so it is not enough to pass the legislation and feel good about it. The public needs to be made aware of the situation, which is where we come in as the awareness piece of it. Once there is awareness, they can bring all kinds of pressure to bear so that there is proper funding to help victims.
AB: What other organizations or leaders are you working with to continue raising awareness on this issue?
KC: We work with individuals and with organizations. Some of the trafficking organizations that I work with are Free the Slaves, Polaris, my partner in Singapore is EmancipAsia, called EmancipAction, and Courtney’s House, which is a provider of direct services here in D.C. Fair Girls is another provider of direct services, and we are also partnering with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in At- lanta to do an awareness campaign this fall, and with a group called Unseen U.K in Bristol in looking towards an awareness campaign in England in 2016. We are also with Frontier Organization in Mumbai and other anti-trafficking NGOs in India. Those are just a few. We had our first U.S. awareness campaign in Jacksonville, Florida working with Freed Firm, my partner Crystal Freed in Jacksonville, the Dolores Barr Weaver Policy Center in Jacksonville, and the Florida Coastal School of Law. We were exhibiting at Michigan State University and a wonderful group of the departments came together with the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. We had two exhibits up there for two months. There is also the NYU student group called Against Child Trafficking.
AB: Why, in your opinion, does the government throw sex work like prostitu- tion and sex trafficking in the same basket?
KC: It has to do with the differences of how people view sex. There is a wide spectrum how people view prostitution, so this somehow gets entangled, with all those nuances.
©Kay Chernush (“...I remember every client, every face, like a horror movie that replays over and over in my nightmares.”)
AB: What do you want your viewers at your exhibition to walk away with?
KC: The ultimate take-away is, “Oh my God, I did not realize this” or “I did not realize the extent of it and I am going to do something about it and I am going to use my own skills, whatever they may be, whether I am a student, lawyer, doctor, health professional, graphic designer, artist, social worker, etc.” Imagination is our one renewable resource. It’s important that we get all hands on board because this is such a complex and insidious problem. Once we build these communities of goodwill and awareness, people can start tak- ing action in things that really do make a difference. By using multiple layers in my images, they are constructive photographs. What I’m after is letting people see another point of view. I want people to be able to burrow into the experience of these people, and just for a moment or two, try to grasp what that’s all about from the inside.
AB: It’s difficult but you have to continue to chip away at it. You have to infil- trate it because there is so much money involved.
KC: 50 billion dollars
AB: Very hard.
KC: It’s very hard. It’s hard also because there is a lot of mom and pop activ- ity, not necessarily a big mafia. There are organized trafficking exploiters but there are also a lot of opportunists. If we can educate young people, espe- cially boys, to think differently about women, that’s a huge starting point. We need to enlist men. This issue resonates very strongly with young people, so we have a wonderful opportunity there. We also need to fairly address the issue of labor exploitation, because that is the biggest piece of trafficking. Sex trafficking is not the largest part of it, but it’s easier for us to talk about the sex trafficking. Labor exploitation is something that is intertwined with the products that we buy, with the food that we eat, the clothes that we put on our back, the electronics that we purchase, and how we live. How can we avoid that and how can we encourage companies that are not using slave labor in the production of their products? That is a really huge piece and that is something that we can really tackle.
The survivors themselves offer strength and I always learn from them. There is always something new to learn. It’s pretty amazing to see the accomplishments that people have made coming out of such trauma.
AB: You guys are heroes. I know you don’t want to hear that.
KC: We are not the heroes. What I am hoping our work helps accomplish is to change the moral landscape. Whatever we think about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and thatartwork, it changed the landscape. When Harriet Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he is reported to have said, “ So you are the little lady who wrote the bookthat started this great war.” This was 150 years ago. Without question, whatever wethink about her book, it did help change the moral landscape of that time, and we need nothing less now. It’s unacceptable in the 21st century that we have people who are bought, sold, and forced into a life of slavery.