21st -Century Slavery Exposed by Photographer

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 17, 2004
A few years ago Jodi Cobb was completely unaware that an estimated 27
million people around the world are enslaved—people 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.

On Assignment

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."

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 conscience—a 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."

Contemporary Slavery

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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