Jenea was 18 and living in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, when she was promised a job as a cleaning lady in Moscow. Instead she was sold for $1,500 to a brothel in Istanbul, Turkey.
Her story is one of many told by photojournalist Mimi Chakarova in “The Price of Sex,” a documentary film about Eastern European women who have been forced into sex trafficking.
“My objective was to reveal their faces and to strip away the shame and stigma that trafficked victims have carried for decades,” Chakarova says.
Starting in 2003, she spent seven years reporting on the European sex trade and profiling some of its survivors. Chakarova, 35, was born in Bulgaria and says many of the women of her generation ended up sold into prostitution after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“I grew up in the region and therefore understand the culture,” she says. “I was able to build trust with the women I interviewed and photographed, but it took many years.”
During the course of her investigation, she posed as a prostitute and used hidden cameras to expose what went on inside of sex clubs in Istanbul’s red-light district. She also pretended to be a trafficked woman and staged a potential sale in order to witness negotiations firsthand.
“I had a young woman from Ukraine tell me that her pimp buys her cigarettes and that if I worked for him, that’s one of the perks I could look forward to,” Chakarova says. “At a certain point, nothing surprises you anymore.”
Some of the girls she met said they were as young as 12 when they were first trafficked for sex. Many told her they were locked in a room, raped, beaten, and made to believe that the only way out was to work until they paid off their debt. Even those who were able to escape were left broken.
“The degradation of the human spirit, especially when it’s in a young person who hasn’t fully developed an identity yet, is terrible to witness,” Chakarova says. “It leaves its mark on your consciousness.”
As many as 27 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide, according to a 2011 State Department report, and January 11 is Human Trafficking Awareness Day in the United States. Chakarova hopes that by showing some of the victims, more will be encouraged to speak up.
“Once you know what happens to others, it is your duty as a human being to take a position,” she says. “Pretending that what’s right in front of you doesn’t exist just because it disrupts your comfort zone is unacceptable.”
- Brett Roegiers, CNN
Visit priceofsex.org to learn more about Chakarova’s documentary, which is currently being screened around the world.