19 June 2009

At What Cost ~ Human Trafficking, Forced Labor, Child Labor

I would like to call attention to this project, entitled "At What Cost ~ Human Trafficking, Forced Labor, Child Labor," scheduled to begin touring in 2010. It is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, on a substantive level it addresses a set of themes that I have taken up here since the outset (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) and that are excruciatingly important. Second, it involves a prominent political theorist Thomas Pogge who has contributed one of several essays that are part of the project (I have not yet read or even acquired it). Finally, and importantly for present purposes, it raises a set of theoretical questions - actually seems to make a set of unfortunate, but conventional, assumptions about - the uses of photography. Here is some text from the project web page:
Global Forced Labor
The Statistics
949,000 in Asia Pacific
1,320,000 in Latin America and the Caribbean
660,000 in Sub-Saharan Africa
260,000 in Middle East and North Africa
210,000 in transitional countries
360,000 in industrialized countries
12,300,000 in all
Almost half of them children
International Labour Organization, 2005

The Stories
Mark Kwadwo is 5 years old.
He was sold to a fisherman in Kete Krachi, Ghana.
Instead of having a childhood, he works each day scooping water from a leaky boat while he is hungry and scared.
Mark cannot swim.
New York Times, 10.29.06

One story can change the world.

AT WHAT COST ~ Human Trafficking/Forced Labor/Child Labor will be a traveling, outdoor exhibition designed to bring public, official, and mainstream media attention to the global crisis of human trafficking and labor abuse towards children and adults. In focusing on the tragically commonplace occurrence of abusive practices in the production of goods and the provision of services by international workers of all ages and ethnicities, the exhibition will present the portraits and stories of ten individuals who have experienced these atrocities.

The project, told in photographs and recorded voices, will focus on the individual exp
eriences of ten people who have been forced to work under abusive conditions in such industries as agriculture, mining, seafood production, domestic service, sexual services, and textile fabrication. Individuals will share not only their images but their stories, which listeners can both read and hear as they connect with the portraits before them. By focusing on the individual story, rather than statistics about these abuses, viewers will be able to identify with those impacted and are more likely to follow through with their own personal support towards abolishing such practices.

Launching in 2010 with a tour of international academic centers the exhibition team will work with venues to create rich programming around each of the issues explored.

In the instance of Mark Kwadwo an individual story in a newspaper prompted a woman thousands of miles away to provide the funding to rescue him from slavery. At a larger scale these stories can allow us, as a society, to abolish slavery.”
The efforts and intentions of the people involved in this project seem admirable and in some ways (e.g., the incorporation of text and voices and music) innovative.* But the undertaking does prompt deep skepticism in me. Here are a set of what seem to me to be pretty obvious questions:

First, the project seems to assume that statistics are simply useless or boring or impenetrable or intimidating or something. And so the "individual stories" are opposed to statistics. How about finding creative ways to convey the statistics and to incorporate them into the project? This is a theme about which I have posted repeatedly. The practices that this project calls our attention to are precisely not simply a series of individual predicaments; they are complex, large-scale aggregate, dare I say political problems. If we hope to remedy them we need to see and grasp their true nature.

Second, the project seems to assume that a focus on individuals caught in the network of despicable labor practices will motivate audiences (or at least some members of audiences) who view their portraits to do something toward "abolishing such practices." But motivate how? To do what? In concert with whom? Perhaps the project staff have answers to theses questions - or some of them, at least - but it is unclear at the moment what they have in mind.

Third, the example that the text does give is of one individual providing relief to one other individual. Admirable perhaps. But, the efforts of wealthy westerners to buy individuals out of slavery can indeed have perverse consequences. If traffickers suspect there is real money - of the sort that rich philanthropists can offer - in the market for slaves they have increased incentive to take more slaves for purposes of selling them.

Finally, how precisely are we to make the transition from an individual moral or political response to despicable practices to a political movement that might eliminate or markedly curtail them? This returns us to the questions I raised at #2 above. For what the individual story changed was the life of a boy (singular) and, as important as that is, that does not change the world.

Perhaps I am being overly critical - especially since I've not seen the exhibition or read the texts. We'll see.
* You can find a list of the individuals involved on the project web page. The project is being coordinated by Artworks with design by de.Mo.

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