In honor of our ten-year anniversary, LifeWay Network is spending some time in conversation with the people who inspire us and whose work is changing the world. In this interview, Sr. Joan Dawber talked to Lynn Savarese, a photographer whose project “The New Abolitionists” highlights survivors, celebrities, and other activists working to combat human trafficking. Sr. Joan was one of the many activists photographed and interviewed for the project. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sr. Joan: What made you turn to photography for The New Abolitionists project? Were you a newcomer to photography?
Lynn Savarese: I am a lawyer by training, and I both practiced law in a law firm and did volunteer work as a lawyer, but upon taking up photography in earnest several years ago, I found my true passion.
The very process of photographing someone turns out to be quite powerful. Photographing survivors, especially, was hugely cathartic for both me and for a number of them. More often than not, at some point during the photography shoot, we each found ourselves in tears, and embracing one another to provide and receive comfort. Invariably, survivors have experienced great trauma, and their stories are painful to recount.
But it can also be liberating for them to be honored and celebrated for having survived and for being a really important activist. Whenever we portray portraits of our New Abolitionists on our website or at exhibitions, we always do it in alphabetical order so that there’s no favoritism shown or greater recognition accorded to the Jimmy Carters or the Meryl Streeps of the world—-who also happen to be New Abolitionists. Having everybody treated absolutely equally and celebrated equally, as members of this Campaign as well as the greater community, turns out to be quite an empowering and moving experience for a lot of our participants.
Sr. Joan: Indeed, it was a moving experience for me because, as you said, it is an intimate experience having your photograph taken, and there was a gentleness and a desire in you to make the image what the individual hoped for it, or something from the individual.
Lynn: It’s incredibly important to me that the portrait of each New Abolitionist, express what they wish to convey in the context of trafficking, as each person comes to the subject with a variety of strong feelings. For your portrait, you were intent on exuding a deep compassion, for you were thinking of the survivors that you want to help, and the kindness and gentleness that you want extended to them. But other New Abolitionists sometime prefer to communicate a firmer resolve….an almost prosecutorial determination, or even an impatience, you know, with the law and with society that allows this human rights travesty to continue. Still others can’t help but show the sadness and the pain involved and forged. But there are also some New Abolitionists—and surprisingly a number of survivors who choose for their portrait and image where they’re communicating joy. I mean, just outright joy that they are survivors, that they have put the horror of having been trafficked behind them, that they weren’t destroyed by it and that indeed it has made them stronger and a more effective acitvist. The amazing thing about portraiture is that it allows one to really look deeply into the eyes of another human being in a way that you’re not allowed to do in person. It gives the viewer an opportunity to look more deeply into a person’s face and into what they’re communicating.
Sr. Joan: I love listening to this. It’s an amazing, creative and honest experience. During that experience of taking the photographs, what did you learn that might surprise others?
Lynn: That perhaps because it is a project intended to raise awareness around trafficking, and people care enormously about communicating the right mixture of emotions, I found that a number of people picked an image of themselves that was not necessarily the most flattering, but did communicate a strong feeling. And that pure vanity, which we all have to some degree, was trumped by an even stronger desire to express something powerful. This wish to communicate honest deep emotion strengthens the potency of the collection of portraits because it’s clear that our Abolitionists are not saying cheese and smiling for the camera, but are instead thinking about and therefore portraying something difficult and challenging and complicated.
Sr. Joan: What was the most challenging part, and what was the most rewarding part for you in that project?
Lynn: One of the most rewarding moments was when we were invited to display our New Abolitionist portraits at Photoville—one of the largest photography art fairs in the country and the largest in New York State, taking place every year on the waterfront in Brooklyn. The Photoville organizers decided that one day the fair was going to be closed to the general public and available only to public school students from all five boroughs and they asked us to talk to the students.
We shared with them the personal stories of our New Abolitionist survivors. Because the average age of entrance into sex trafficking is 13 or 14 years old, these students were the perfect target group. And it was really satisfying to be able to tell them these stories of tragedy and triumph, to caution them that this is in their world, it’s all around them, and for them to respond because sometimes they’re seeing kids their age and hearing stories of kids their age who live in their city falling prey to trafficking.
It is always, always, always deeply meaningful to me to meet survivors and to hear their stories. They never fail to move me. Their stories are tremendously sad, they’re tremendously poignant, but the resilience of the human heart and the human spirit is also very much on display. And I’m sure you must feel that way so often in your own intimate work and involvement with survivors. They’re the heart and soul of the New Abolitionists campaign. To meet them, to honor them, to pay tribute to them, to celebrate them, and to give them a means of communicating their stories, their experiences, their hopes—that is intensely rewarding for me.
Sr. Joan: Has there been anyone whose story has stuck a particular chord in you?
Lynn: There are two young male survivors whose stories struck me especially deeply, perhaps because male survivors are much less likely to share their stories and find it a much harder thing to do. As males, they’re challenged more often with questions like: ”Well, why did you tolerate it? You’re a sturdy, strong, virile male. Why did you allow this to happen?”
One of our New Abolitionist male survivors grew up in a loving home in the Midwest, but he was gay and that just wasn’t “acceptable” in the particular town he was living in. So he moved to an urban area as a teenager and got in with the wrong people and became entrapped and his trafficker was physically vicious and threatened to kill him and his family. He was very fearful that this guy would make good on his threat, and so he remained trapped for a long time. But finally, at great risk to himself, he fled and escaped successfully…although he had to remain in hiding for a very long time thereafter.
Another of our young male survivors of sex trafficking lost his mother in the first moments of his life—she died in childbirth giving birth to him—and his father chose to blame him and punish him for her death. An unbelievably evil man, from the get go, he told his son that he had killed this woman, and owed him for her death, and began selling his son when he was four, five, six years old to pedophiles, buyers of children. He would chain him to a stake, at truck stops and behind motels, and men would come in droves. He might have to service 20, 30 men a day when he was a kid. He finally mustered up the courage and resolve to flee from his father as a young teenager, when he came to believe that his father had actually murdered one of his best friends in school. That’s what finally prompted him to go to the authorities. But the stories are all horrible.
Sr. Joan: Thank you for sharing that. Is there a next big step for the New Abolitionists project? What is your vision for it and how would you describe its ultimate goal?
Lynn: That’s a good question. We want to have at least a couple more exhibitions where there’s an opportunity to display the portraits and share the stories and have a significant audience see them and be affected by them. And then we also want to produce a higher quality hardbound book. There are too many members in the New Abolitionists community for us to include all of them in the book because we’re over 300 people now. The book will feature mostly our survivors, and also maybe a handful of iconic other Abolitionists.
There was a cover story recently in the New York Times Sunday Magazine addressing the issue of whether the sex trade as a whole should be decriminalized, to permit buyers of sexual services to be free to do so without sanction or penalty, and to permit “sex workers” the right to engage in prostitution without hindrance. But every survivor I’ve talked to can’t stand the term “sex worker.” It just adds insult to injury. There’s this misguided notion among very liberal minded people, and unfortunately a number of very liberal minded young women, that decriminalizing sex is actually a feminist objective because criminalizing prostitution is thought to be paternalistic and condescending to women and men controlling women’s bodies again.
But I think that that’s a really naive perception of prostitution and what’s really going on, and certainly the survivors I’ve met think it’s very naive as well. Nobody thinks that prostituted people should be punished, but to stop the trafficking of vulnerable children, women and men in the sex trade, the demand for them has to be stopped. And the only way to stop demand is to impose significant criminal penalties on buyers and traffickers. Publishing a book that shares the stories of so many of our New Abolitionist survivors book will help counter a false narrative featuring young, supposedly college-educated women who, of their own volition, choose to be prostitutes or sex workers. That is a narrative that grossly distorts what’s really going on.
Sr. Joan: Absolutely. I have just a couple more questions. You know, Lifeway Network’s logo is a dove, which we view as the idea of hope. I’m asking this question of everybody we’re interviewing: what is the hope for this movement going forward?
Lynn: The hope is that we can increase the level of empathy and awareness on the part of humanity, because I do believe that humans want to be good people for the most part. I even believe that people who are currently buying the bodies of children, men and women for sex might stop doing so if they really had a fuller appreciation of the actual circumstances of those whose bodies they’re buying. And so I am hopeful that if we can just raise awareness and tell the stories more effectively that it will bring about change.
Sr. Joan: Thank you so much, Lynn. You’ve really given me quite something to think about. And it’s just been a pleasure to hear about your passion for this project and the passion for the women and the men that we have served and are serving. One final question, what do you believe everyone needs to know about this issue?
Lynn: This is certainly not original, but it’s fitting. You’ve heard prostitution is often called “the world’s oldest profession.” But I think a more fair description is that it’s “the world’s oldest oppression.” There is no instance in which someone, an undamaged person with lots of different options, would choose to be treated this way by another human being.
Sr. Joan: Thank you so very much and Lynn, thank you for all the help you have given us in doing this. It’s been a real learning experience for me and for all of us, and I very much appreciate this conversation.
Lynn: Well, thank you for what you’re doing. You know better than anyone how nearly impossible it can be to escape if you don’t have a bed, shelter, a place to go, if there’s no safe place for you. You are providing it, and virtually nobody else is. So thank you, thank you, thank you.