for National Geographic News
A few years ago Jodi Cobb was completely unaware that an estimated 27 million people around the world are enslavedpeople trapped, controlled by violence, paid nothing, and exploited for labor.
Then she read a blurb in the Washington Post about the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which ensures that slaves in the U.S. will not be deported if they testify against their former owners.
"I realized I didn't know anything about this issue, and I was curious about it. The more I investigated, the more horrified I became," Cobb said.
She heard stories of women sold and traded for sexual exploitation. She heard stories of children toiling in factories to pay off their parents' unending debts. She heard stories of migrants tricked into trading years of farm or domestic labor in exchange for transport across the U.S. border.
As she shared these stories with friends and colleagues, Cobb, a staff photographer for National Geographic magazine, realized what her next assignment was going to be.
Cobb pitched the idea for a story on contemporary slavery to her editor and together with writer Andrew Cockburn was given the go-ahead to produce what would become a defining story for the modern-day antislavery movement.
"I knew people would be interested, and I knew people would care as much as I did, but it was a departure from the usual kind of National Geographic story," Cobb said.
Though they collaborated on their research while at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., Cobb and Cockburn struck out independently to different corners of the world to cover the stories they each wanted to tell.
"[Cockburn] wanted to talk about how it happens, who profits, how the system works, how the money moves around, and how people move around," Cobb said. "I needed to give it a human face and get evidence."
According to Free the Slaves, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, slavery is illegal in every country but is practiced at some level, in some form, just about everywhere around the world.
The most difficult task, according to Cobb, was gaining access to photograph the people caught up in this illegal, underground activity. "Slaves are a big investment for traffickers, and they will do anything to protect that investment," Cobb said. "Mostly, they did not want me around."
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