By Katie Webb
Arts & Entertainment Editor
A subway bench, a dorm couch and a therapy chair. To most people these are ordinary images, but for the 17 thousand Russian girls aging out of orphanages each year at 16 years old, these photographs capture their fight against human trafficking.
The photo series, taken by Simon Scionka, is not a representation. The first two images are actual locations where young women are targeted for trafficking – forced or coerced into prostitution – and the final image is where they get therapeutic help if they are survivors.
The photographs are a part of the multimedia “Empathy Exhibit” in Calkins Hall, at the FORM gallery. The art was commissioned by Brad Riley, president and founder of the nonprofit, anti-trafficking group iEmpathize, who came the exhibit on Wednesday at common hour to engage students.
“It’s so important for us to show up on universities because it’s the long term solution. If we can engage 18–25-year-olds, who are the future policy makers, law enforcement, and educators, we can shift the mindset, shift the culture,” said Riley.
The mindset Riley is working to instill in students is the namesake of his company and it's simple: think empathetically. Empathy may seem like an unorthodox business ideology, but it’s effective. All it requires is for people to see what is happening around them and be active.
iEmpathize actively combats human trafficking in three ways: Riley travels to the places where human trafficking exists to help the victims. He brings along artists, photographers and camera teams to document the scene. Then, they use the art to campaign on a political level and show the piece in exhibits to educate society.
“In Mexico City I showed up with my photographer, my camera guys and we interview one of the kids who is helping,” said Riley. “We want to know exactly where things happened, and we’ll go in under cover. We had the equivalent of the Mexican FBI and armored vehicles. There are times we are endangering ourselves; we’ve ran for our lives many times. We’ve had nine millimeters put on our film crews, gear stolen, but we do it anyway.”
The crew risked their lives to create the Mexico City photo narrative – a mesmerizing series. The first photo shows a drainage system where UNICEF estimates 200 to 300,000 kids live in “'Lord of the Flies' gang style, huffing glue and having survival sex with adults for food,” said Riley. Like many of the photos, it is a grim vision, but an eye-opening one. And that is the point.
“It’s a global pandemic, the more we have public outrage the more it changes,” said Riley. He added that human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the world.
iEmpathize has raised over $1 million over the past five years to end trafficking all around the world with projects reaching from China to California. But thinking the issue is a distant global problem is a common misconception.
“Internet search [for] human trafficking – [in] Long Island, [or] Queens – all of a sudden you’ll realize this is happening all around you. Queens is a huge issue for human trafficking. It’s your neighbor city. There’s things to watch out for, ways to keep each other safe,” said Riley.
That is an underlying message in the Empathy Exhibit and iEmpathize's business: we can keep each other safe from the dangers of trafficking if we act.
One of Riley’s favorite photos, the last photo in the Mexico City series, echoes this sense of triumphant security. It is a blurred shot of many dishes of food at a table. A dozen women sit at the table, a family having a meal together. The house was a former drug cartel. The women were once forced into prostitution, victims. But now it is just a safe home, and they are survivors.