Imagery matters to anti-slavery work says new report

Images of modern slavery, particularly photographs, can create an inaccurate portrayal of what it looks like, according to a new report written by academics from the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham.

The project is part of the AHRC/GCRF project ‘The Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network’.

The report, ‘Photographing Modern Slavery: Recommendations for Responsible Practice,’ studied the current imagery used to depict modern slavery and found it risks harming anti-slavery work and survivors by creating misinformation and re-exploitation.

Public awareness campaigns or posters often depict people with their hands in chains, yet modern slavery is more likely to occur through coercion and control, making it a hidden problem where people are threatened, held accountable for a debt or have their passports confiscated.

Re-enactment photography – where a photographer constructs a staged image which is based on their understanding of modern slavery – can be dangerous and misleading as it’s based entirely on the perceptions of the photographer not survivors. Another problem, identified by the authors, is compassion fatigue with viewers likely to be paralysed by sensationalist photos, rather than galvanized into action.

Emily Brady, author of the report, said: “If slavery is misrepresented, we cannot educate the public on what to look out for because all they will be seeing are victims who are physically restrained or hunched over a bed or table, often holding their face in their hands to signify distress. Over time these images can also make people less sensitive to the harm endured by enslaved people because they become the new norm.

“To improve our understanding, we need to hear from survivors, who are the best people to assess whether an image is evocative or a harmful stereotype. The importance of survivor voices is one of our key recommendations because they can offer insights and information based on their experiences.”

The report provides a set of guidelines on how to use images responsibly and explains some of the methods employed by four anti-slavery organisations who have produced photographs in a positive way.

The recommendations made in the report include:

  • Employing and paying survivors as consultants can help to ensure their views are incorporated in the creative process
  • Providing survivors with cameras to document their lives should become common practice
  • Informed consent should be a priority, so photographers can avoid exploiting people further
  • Creativity and originality should replace stereotypes and staged stories

Public awareness of modern slavery is increasing, and with it the use of anti-slavery imagery. All those working to help end slavery need to recognise the significance of imagery in this struggle. This report offers us ethical and survivor-informed ways to create and publish images.”

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