Photographer helps empower human trafficking survivors

Photographer Erica Simone on her experience in Ghana:

In some parts of the world, $20 can barely get you a steak dinner, and in others, it can purchase a live, human child—a child who will most likely be sold into slavery. Welcome to Ghana, and welcome to Lake Volta—the largest man-made reservoir in the world where almost 50,000 children—some as young as four years old—are working under unthinkable duress in the fishing industry. 

In June of 2017, I traveled to Winneba, Ghana with the non-profit organization, Beauty for Freedom (BFF), a New York City-based anti-human trafficking organization founded by the passionate human rights activist, Monica Watkins, which works directly with NGOs and communities around the world, bringing creative workshops and art therapy to victims and survivors of human trafficking and/or slavery. On this project, we were working closely with the local Ghanaian organization, Challenging Heights.

Beauty for Freedom’s mission is to empower children with expressive outlets and to give them creative and educational opportunities they would not normally have. They offer platforms for the children to create prideful paintings that gets exhibited in big city art galleries and to take photo- graphs that get published as coffee table books, all sold entirely for the profit of their schools and programs and to give the kids the opportunity for personal development and achievement. On many occasions, the children are also taught sewing, music, videography, and other skills that could help their future careers.

Over the past 10 years of working with undeserved communities around the world, many have torn my soul with heart-wrenching stories. And yet, the traumatic reality about Lake Volta’s trafficked children are worthy of the worst of nightmares.

Most of the time, it’s the child’s poverty-stricken family itself who voluntarily sells their child or children for as little as $20, usually after being misled into thinking they will be given a better life on the lake, or the child is simply kidnapped and then trafficked, and sometimes at an age as young as three years old.

Some, thankfully, are able to break free, such as James Kofi-Annan, the founder and incredible force behind Challenging Heights. James was forced into slave labor on Lake Volta at six years old, working from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day for seven years, tortured and abused, malnourished, deprived of medical care and education. He was able to escape at 13 years-old and put himself through school, paying for his uniform and books with the money he collected from the menial work he picked up. 

Challenging Heights, founded in 2005, is dedicated to saving the lives of trafficked children and offering them the support and education they need in order to transcend their past and empower their future.

While in Winneba, I worked at Challenging Heights‘ Friends International Academy School for two weeks, teaching photography lessons to teenage boys and girls. One of our interactive photo proj- ects was in collaboration with French artist, JR and his Inside Out Project where the kids shot por- traits of their peers and teachers, which were then printed in large format and pasted onto the walls of their school. Other photographs they took will soon be curated into a published coffee table book called “Illuminate Ghana,” which will be sold internationally to raise funds for the organization.

As we combed the village, we watched a group of women and their daughters make soup for their family and a man chop away at what seemed like small pieces of wood, but could have easily been left over bones from a carnivorous lunch. We observed an elderly man mend a fishing net as his dog kept him company, a seven year-old do the daily dishes over a pile of rocks, a chuckling woman braid another’s hair, two young boys attempting to sell dried fish from perfectly balanced metal platters resting on their heads, and a pair of baby goats posing against a blue wall.