But by working with local aid agencies with a finger on the pulse of the issue and sometimes just showing up at the right place and the right time, she and Cockburn eventually gained the access they needed to put together 21st-Century Slaves.
Their story was published in the September 2003 issue of the magazine and over the ensuing months it has generated more positive feedback than any article since a story on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1987, according to the magazine's public relations department.
"The most gratifying thing is it's not just people saying 'nice story.' People were moved to action," Cobb said.
Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, said the article helped push awareness of modern-day slavery into the mainstream consciencea watershed that is now carrying the blossoming modern-day anti-slavery movement.
"The article in National Geographic was crucial to introducing the problem to the public," he said. "It brought people to a position, to a new awareness, and let them reflect on how they feel about it."
According to the article, the most common form of servitude today is debt slavery, in which a person becomes held as a laborer on a farm, or as prostitute in a brothel, or as worker on a factory floor after accepting a loan, or transport, or another form of assistance from a "lender."
The lender is a slave owner or trafficker, often tricking laborers into working for little or no pay, making it impossible for them to escape their condition. And the enslaved, Cockburn writes, have nowhere to turn.
"Such captives the world over are mostly helpless," Cockburn wrote. "They are threatened; they live in fear of deportation; they are cut off from any source of advice or support because they cannot communicate with the outside world."
Cobb's photographs tell the story:
Children making bracelets that sell for U.S. 40 cents a dozen to pay off their parents' debt in northern India
Eastern European women, sold into prostitution for U.S. $4,000 each, awaiting clients at a brothel in Tel Aviv, Israel
A member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker organization, handing out pamphlets on slave labor operations in South Florida
A convicted trafficker behind bars in a Nepalese jail
"I was trying to portray them in a way that would inspire sympathy and understanding," Cobb said.
According to Bales, who says the first step to abolishing slavery is recognition of the problem, Cobb achieved her goal.
"It really helps that people understand that the victims of slavery are people just like them in many ways, and that is where [Cobb's] photos are so powerful ; She captures the humanity of people who have been enslaved ," he said.
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