Each year, according to the I.L.O., nearly 21 million women, men, and children are trapped into an economy of forced labor. These victims of coercion — whether facing overt physical threats or subtle manipulations of illiteracy and debt — provide $150 billion to the world’s economy. About half of the victims are migrants. And an estimated $99 billion, from the $150 billion total, is the result of sexual exploitation, or prostitution.
Starting in 2005, for her project Pipeline, Elena Perlino, who was awarded a Magnum Emergency Fund this year, has been documenting the lives of women trafficked into Italy, one of the world’s main destinations for sexual exploitation. The photos in Pipeline capture, with sharp clarity, the bearing of deep privation, while also recording evidence of bonding, endurance, and self that rises through the catastrophe of human slavery.
In this interview, Elena Perlino talks about the human trafficking in Italy, her project Pipeline, and one of my favorite series of hers Sea of Light.
What brought your attention to the sex trafficking in Italy? How did Pipeline get its start?
The project Pipeline started in 2005 and grew over the years. Human trafficking in Italy is a phenomenon that has lasted over twenty years, and you cannot avoid noticing it. I decided to focus on Nigerian women working as prostitutes in the middle of nowhere, not far away from where I used to live.
You say that the women are usually exploited by somebody who’s part of the community they know intimately, for example, a sister or a friend. You call this person a maman. Could you talk about what a maman is? How does exploitation root itself in this way?
Mamans are the keys of exploitation in a business that has a high female presence. They might have a regular passport; they are often married, maybe with an Italian man. They are in charge of 4-5 Nigerian women, control how they dress, what they eat, whether they go to work every day, whether they pay the monthly debt. Also, Nigerian women are terrified of the consequences that Juju — a vodou ritual that’s very common in Southern Nigeria — might have on their families and themselves.
Do you think prostitution zones, like those proposed in Milan last February, will help reduce sex trafficking? Which policy do you think will be most effective?
I guess that the idea of creating a prostitution zone has a lot to do with the idea of keeping a public order. Over the years, traffickers have developed such a sophisticated and corrupted system. It is very fluid and adaptable. I doubt that a red-light district could reduce trafficking; it will just find different ways of developing. Quoting Laura Maragnani and Isoke Aikpitanyi: “Trafficking is not just a question of sex, of whores and clients. Trafficking is, first of all, a colossal business. It’s a form of slavery that makes a stack of money, and whites and blacks share that money, in perfect harmony.”¹ I think it is important to keep raising awareness of the slavery conditions the women we meet on the streets live in. But clients make the trafficking possible. It is important to focus on them as well.
Where do you see this project going forward after the EF grant?
The EF grant allowed me to focus on a new chapter of the trafficking consequences, offering a new way of perceiving this phenomenon. In Italy, clients and prostitutes have developed strong relationships that go beyond the street. I will explore the cultural differences and the opportunities these relationships bring to both sides and how this can actually have a contribution to better understanding the trafficking issue.
Sea of Light is much different in terms of style and technique. How did Sea of Light get its start? How would you describe its visual style?
Sea of Light started in 2003 during the biennial seminar Reflexions Masterclass curated by Giorgia Fiorio. shooting was a daily activity: I was focusing on unpredictable moments that usually pass unnoticed. I didn’t plan any images in advance: any moment could become a picture. I was often working in low-light conditions. I guess it had to do with the fact that people start to get more relaxed, less in control. That is the ideal. It was a loose project, with only a Leica M6 and a 35mm lens.
You talk about each person straddling a space between normality and abnormality in the foreword for this project. Could you explain what you mean by each term? How did this project illustrate this navigation?
What I found extremely interesting in photography is the ability to explore the elements of imperfection all around, the beauty where you don’t expect it. Working on the desolation of women who ended up on Italian roads from Benin City (Edo State, Nigeria) I did not expect to find joy, laughter, and simplicity.
Though stylistically different, both projects share images that you’re adept at taking. These images are super kinetic, almost voyeuristic. For example, in this one, you capture what seems to be a couple having sex. How do you find yourself in these moments? What’s the attraction of shooting them to you, exactly?
The first image is a self-portrait. It was a moment of intimacy that I thought was important to capture. Photography, as a daily activity, has become, over the years, essential to my way of conceiving the world: it allows you to keep focused on what happens around you and to dwell on the details. You need to spend good amaount of time in an environment that you want to describe to get significant images. Confidence and empathy are necessary. You need to be physically and psychologically close to whom you photograph.
This one is another example of these moments. What’s going on here? What’s the story behind this image? How did you capture it?
In this image I was in a natural reserve in Tuscany. While getting out of the woods, I saw a calcareous waterfall with Adam and Eve descending it. It was a surreal and intimate vision. I think it’s important to follow your instinct of shooting, constantly, without a specific reason, or planning. After a while, you’ll discover that you’ve been going toward new directions in your photography. You learn about yourself more than you would have thought.
What have these projects taught you about your life? Have they changed you at all?
Photography allows you to deal with reality in a practical way. When you take a picture you need to be there, close enough; there is a physical interaction with the people you deal with. You need to be in charge: you cannot delegate to somebody else. This is extremely challenging and rewarding on a personal and professional level. Over the years I learned a few basic rules: be very critical with yourself, ask suggestions for the editing, and work on your weak points. Last but not least, photography offers you the chance to discover something you learn pretty fast in life: things are never as they appear.
¹L.Maragnani, I.Aikpitanyi, The Girls from Benin City, Melampo Editore, Milano, 2012
All photos © Elena Perlino
See all her work here.