Many find comfort believing that the insidious world of sex trafficking is a world apart from our own. A quietly powerful photography show turns that notion on its head.
Sex trafficking of children, women and men, in fact, thrives in close range, if only we dare to look.
“When Places Speak,” at the University of Minnesota’s Goldstein Museum of Design, features 20 large-scale digital prints. There’s not a human in any of them, which is precisely the intention.
Instead, photographers Xavier Tavera and Shiraz Mukarram zero in on common recruitment locations identified by law enforcement officials.
Many of those places are frequented by you and me: a city park. A downtown sidewalk reflected through a window. The back steps of a house in a neighborhood not unlike ours. But in this exhibit, these benign images take on a sinister tone.
“Alley Behind a Fast Food Restaurant” reveals just enough light to see, or not see, how easily a sex crime could occur here.
“It is a difficult, challenging subject matter,” said Goldstein director Lin Nelson-Mayson, “but the photos challenge you to think about what’s happening all around you.
“Part of the challenge is getting the viewer to say, ‘What do I see here that is ordinary, and what do I see that helps me see things differently?’ ”
The U.S. State Department estimates that 2 million women and children are victims of human trafficking every year, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing crimes and certainly one of the most lucrative. The business brings in as much as $150 billion every year.
The average age of a victim in her first encounter is 13. Boys and men, too, are victims, noted Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.
“There is a false perception that men and boys are only trafficked for labor, or that they always participate in commercial sex ‘voluntarily.’ ”
But in one study of sexually exploited youths in New York City, roughly half the victims were boys 17 and under, she said.
Minnesota is moving aggressively to combat sex trafficking. As the exhibit notes, more than 4,000 youths are homeless in Minnesota on any given night. More than 20 percent of them have been sexually exploited while homeless.
In 2011, the state passed the Safe Harbor for Youth Act, which treats anyone under age 18 engaged in sex trafficking as a victim who needs to be protected — protected by all of us. Remember, when we see something, we must say something.
In addition to the show, co-curated by Tasoulla Hadjiyanni and Lauren Martin, the gallery provides an information sheet chock-full of resources, case studies and websites for getting involved, and reasons to leap in.
Among the photographs are a handful suggesting a sunnier world. One features the juvenile unit of a police station where rescuing of a child victim begins. Another shows a color-drenched child’s bedroom inside a transitional housing unit.
“That’s where hope begins,” Nelson-Mayson said.
“We are reminded when we see these things that there are people all around us we need to pay attention to.”