CNN Photos

Victims of modern-day slavery

Jon Lowenstein trains his eye on the parts of society many people try to avoid.

“I'm really interested in stories that are hidden or untold or in places that are off the beaten path and forgotten,” the photographer said. “But I try to do it in an elegant way. I try to find a poetic and intimate way of telling the stories.”

For the past 10 years, Lowenstein has documented gun violence in Chicago’s crime-riddled South Side and highlighted the experiences of undocumented immigrants living across the United States.

His work looks at the issues of power, poverty, alienation and violence, and it has recently taken him across the United States, Central America, Haiti and Uganda.

“My subjects are people who have been left behind by the global market or are being used by the global market," Lowenstein said. "It's the intersection between the past and the present, but also how globalization is impacting the world."

Lowenstein says he tries to take an overwhelming problem like modern-day slavery and engage people on a personal, emotional level.

"The type of photography I enjoy is more like poetry,” Lowenstein said. “It stops a moment and it condenses ideas into this other form, this other language. When you see a great picture, it stops and burns into your psyche."

An example is his work with “Christabelle,” a young woman whose father sold her at a young age for both domestic labor and sex. She told Lowenstein she became an alcoholic while in her teens.

“Since then, she has found a way to reform and change her life and understand the abuse she'd been through,” Lowenstein said. “It was kind of amazing because she was doing it on her own, but at the same time she was learning different lessons from a variety of other people who had suffered real indignities in their lives.”

Lowenstein also met Geronimo Sanchez Bravo. Bravo was looking for work in Immokalee, Florida, when he was kidnapped, locked up with chains in the back of a box truck with four other immigrants, and forced to work as a farmhand for over a year.

“These guys, they're basically doing the lowest, hardest work in the U.S., and then they end up in these insane situations,” Lowenstein said. “It's like the lower you are in the chain of society, the more obstacles you face to just survive.”

Just down the road from where Bravo was held captive, Lowenstein also chronicled the last vestiges of an abandoned slave-labor camp. But the camp wasn’t a relic from the 19th century; the human rights abuses took place less than 20 years ago.

“The traffickers had been holding Central American and Mexican migrants, forcing them to work in the vegetable and citrus fields,” Lowenstein said. “They were forced to work 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, for as little as $20 a week under the watch of armed guards. Those who attempted to escape were assaulted, pistol-whipped or even shot.

“The traffickers were sentenced to 15 years in prison. But it's crazy: This labor camp is sitting in the middle of a town, it hasn't been razed or anything. If you walk in, this is where they kept people as slaves. I felt it was important to show this space. Where are some of the places where people are put? What do they look like?"H

Lowenstein wants the photographs to hopefully become the catalyst for discussion about how to get training for lawmakers and law enforcement, as well as proper resources to help people on the ground.

“At the end of the day, the work I do is about people,” he said. “But it's also about concepts and politics and how people relate to each other. Sometimes you feel you're not getting anywhere with it, but I try to show it as much as I can.”

- Leif Coorlim, CNN

Find out more about modern-day slavery and how you can help at the CNN Freedom Project.