Called to Listen

While documenting daily life on a self-assigned photography trip to Myanmar, Matilde Simas found herself in a nunnery filled with 200 children. “I was completely confused as to why I was in a nunnery and there were so many little children,” she says. Then she learned the awful truth: Parents were dropping off their children in a desperate attempt to shield them from human trafficking.

“Photography is a powerful tool to create awareness, but we have to be aware that we don’t perpetuate a stereotype or create images that are really poverty porn.
© Matilde Simas
“Photography is a powerful tool to create awareness, but we have to be aware that we don’t perpetuate a stereotype or create images that are really poverty porn."

“That was the first time I was confronted by human trafficking and the power it has,” Simas says. When she returned home to Massachusetts, she began researching the issue and enrolled in a Harvard University course on modern-day slavery. Simas, a portrait photographer, was inspired by guest speakers who shared their personal experiences of having been trafficked. She knew she wanted to use her skills to empower people who had experienced this tragic injustice.

“My goal is to accomplish three things,” she says of her advocacy photography: 

  • Inform people about human trafficking by stretching their perception, understanding, and compassion.
  • Provoke discussion.
  • Inspire action. “I want people to support organizations working to resolve these social injustices.” 
© Matilde Simas

Lending an ear

Though Simas continues to operate a portrait business in North Andover, Massachusetts, she now uses those sessions to fund her advocacy. “I tell my clients they are my benefactors,” she says. “Without them, I would not be able to do the work that I do.”

The work is making portraits of human trafficking survivors and gathering testimonials through what she calls “deep listening.” She does this by reaching out to nongovernmental organizations around the world that support human trafficking survivors and then visiting the survivors they assist to make portraits as she listens to their stories.

© Matilde Simas

Establishing a partnership with an NGO takes time—often a year of Skype meetings and communications to explain her approach and establish enough trust for her to be invited for a visit of two to three weeks. “What I’m doing is fairly uncommon,” she says. “That a photographer is offering their services in a therapeutic way to survivors takes some explanation. You have to build trust because of the sensitivity of exposing survivors.”

She emphasizes that her portrait making is a joint collaboration with the subject: “I find that when I put the person first, then the stories come, and then the photography is created. If you see my photos, [they are] moving images because they show the relationship that was created between myself and the subject. The relationship is the most important part of my process.”

She exercises patience in waiting for subjects to present themselves and to open up. For example, in her work with an organization in the Philippines, she simply introduced herself to the group, explained why she was there, and left the door open for anyone to volunteer to be photographed or simply ask her questions about her work. A couple of days later, a few girls emerged and asked her to make their photograph. She often photographs subjects participating in the daily activities arranged by the NGO, like an art class or tennis clinic. She never knows where or when a subject might open up about their experience. “It could happen during a car ride,” she says. When a subject begins talking, she asks if she can record the conversation, prompting them with questions like, How are you feeling about reintegration? Or, How are you feeling about your future goals? In other cases, subjects write their own testimonials.

© Matilde Simas

Since many of her subjects suffer from post-traumatic stress, Simas is extremely careful in the gathering and sharing of testimonials. Her purpose is to be a sounding board for the subject to discuss trauma and to establish a connection that will lend itself to profound portraiture. The photos she makes are used by the NGOs for brochures, annual reports, and on their websites, so it’s important they communicate an uplifting message. “Photography is a powerful tool to create awareness, but we have to be aware that we don’t perpetuate a stereotype or create images that are really poverty porn,” Simas says. “I don’t want my portrait subjects to look at my images 20 years later and feel like I have perpetuated a stereotype or invaded their privacy. I am empowering my subject and photographing them with dignity.”

Simas partners with two to three organizations a year throughout the world. Human trafficking varies from country to country. For example, she worked with an organization in Tanzania that supports children with albinism, who are hunted for their body parts and therefore suffer at the hands of organ trafficking. In Kenya, she partnered with an organization that supports young girls forced into marriage and domestic servitude. In the Philippines she worked with an organization that supports teen girls affected by cyber sex trafficking and domestic servitude. She also documents human trafficking survivors in the United States; she spent a year photographing and gathering testimonials from a survivor in Maine. “I think it’s important when I am talking about human trafficking on a global level to also talk about it on a local level,” she says.

© Matilde Simas

A storytelling network

In 2017, Simas was asked to exhibit her portraits of Kenyan human trafficking survivors. She struggled to write the artist statement and photo captions. “Content is so important to the photography,” she says. “I think it’s very misleading to show these images without writing, and the writing has to be just as strong.”

As time went on and she exhibited more works, she reached out to writers for help with the copy, but she couldn’t afford to pay them. That’s when she had the idea to found Capture Humanity, an organization that brings together photographers, writers, and filmmakers passionate about telling human trafficking survivors’ stories. In addition to the creatives, the organization includes a team of survivor advisors who ensure Capture Humanity’s message stays on point and doesn’t harm its subjects.

“They are looking at the work to make sure we are not overstepping with sensitivity issues that we may not be thinking about,” she says. For example, she made sure to recruit an advisor local to Africa, since Simas can be blind to the particular challenges facing human trafficking survivors in those countries.

© Matilde Simas

Though the organization was founded out of a need for good writing, it’s also been a comfort to Simas to have access to a network of collaborators confronting the same injustices. “Working on this social issue can be very isolating,” she says. “Most of the time I feel sort of alone in the work I’m doing, and it’s very emotional work. Being supported as a person who is reporting on sensitive issues is the other reason Capture Humanity was born.”

With the help of Capture Humanity, Simas now has writers who can pitch stories to media outlets and compose copy for exhibitions. She strives to exhibit her work in public spaces and museums where the general public can engage with the work. For example, she’s scheduled to hang an exhibition in Maine’s Portland International Airport that will then travel to the New Bedford Art Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She’s also placed in photography competitions that have exhibited her work in Tokyo, Paris, and Taipei. “It’s important to engage a local and global audience in these conversations because human trafficking exists in every country.”

No matter how much Simas—or anyone, really—reads about human trafficking, nothing compares to what the survivors themselves can teach you, she says. People often ask her why she continually exposes herself to so much heartache.

“It’s really because of the survivors,” she says. “I learn so much from them. How do they want to be photographed? How they want their stories told. It’s about empowering them. I want them to feel seen and feel like the world cares about them. … It’s incredibly empowering to tell your story, and I want to enable survivors to do that.”

Occasionally she receives an email from a survivor thanking her for listening, as they’d never told their story before she gave them the opportunity. “That is what makes me feel incredible,” she says. “That is really what is driving the work.”

Amanda Arnold is the associate editor of Professional Photographer.