Four hands touching.

What it means to survive

Photography by women who have escaped slavery

Human trafficking has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, its profit coming directly from the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. It is organisations like Piam Onlus shelter in Asti which provide safe shelter to the women who escape and help them to rebuild their lives, far away from home.

Piam Onlus invited Voice of Freedom to their shelter to run a participatory photography programme with ten of these women, bringing their voices to a public audience for the first time. Voice of Freedom enables trafficked women to document their lives, feelings and experiences through photography, and supports them through the often-painful process of articulating the words to accompany their images.

The work advocates for change with an authentic voice… that of the survivor herself

They had been to hell and back – tricked into slavery or kidnapped, taken to an unknown country, assaulted and imprisoned. The women endured the unendurable as they were trafficked from Nigeria, through Libya, into Italy. They arrived via the Mediterranean, transported in fragile and overcrowded boats. Many were rescued from the water after their boats sank and they helplessly watched as their friends drowned. Once on dry land, they were met by traffickers, held captive and forced into prostitution until they managed to escape. 

Their images are snapshots. Unique to each photographer and a look into their daily lives as they re-join society and discover a new life. But the stories these images represent and the associations they share are nothing short of harrowing. And powerful. This work has been exhibited in Asti, Turin and London, and there are plans to bring the exhibition to Palermo this year. 

In recognition of her work with Voice of Freedom, trafficking survivor Sarah Oluwatimileyin was awarded a scholarship by the Thompson Reuters Foundation to attend its Trust Conference in November 2018, where the photography she had produced on the Voice of Freedom project was exhibited. Sarah met influential campaigners and leaders in the anti-trafficking movement and gave interviews, including one for the BBC World Service Newshour, which has a global reach of 66 million listeners. She spoke about the importance of the project and how Voice of Freedom has enabled her to share her story of survival with the world. 

Photography from the Voice of Freedom project has been exhibited to highlight the issue of human trafficking at Amnesty UK and been featured by Anti-Slavery International magazine to support their Victim Protection Campaign. 

Each woman owns the rights to their photographs. 

Canon is proud to be the technical sponsor of the Voice of Freedom exhibition. Visit the Voice of Freedom website to see more photography from the exhibition.

Feet in black shoes, stood on a dusty clay surface.
© Omo Collis
Spoons and forks lying side by side.
© Emmanuel Joyce

Above left, by Omo Collis: “I took this picture with this shoe because this sand is like a desert, and if police inside the desert stop us, this is how their shoe look like. So this sand is form of desert. Then this two shoe it looks like all those men. If they ask you money you don’t have, they will rob you, rape you.” 

Above right, by Emmanuel Joyce: “I took this picture for two reasons. The first reason is, when I was in Libya, when we were in ghetto, we slept like this. No fresh air, nothing nothing. Some people even died there. And the second reason why I took this picture is, this is how people died in the boat while crossing to Europe.”

A hand holding an iron
© Emmanuel Joyce
The top of a woman’s head, with spectacles on.
© Sarah Oluwatimileyin

Above left, by Emmanuel Joyce: “Many people use this to iron clothes. But there is another thing they use the iron for. Most of the madames that brought girls to Europe use the same iron to maltreat people. They use it when the girls refuse to pay the money. They will plug the iron and put it on her body. Even a friend of mine, she showed me her back where her madame plugged the iron and press it on her. It is very bad for a human being to use an iron that is plugged, to put it on someone’s body, all in the name of money.” 

Above right, by Sarah Oluwatimileyin: “I took this picture because I was not opportuned, when I was in my country, to dress like this. The glasses doesn’t have shade, and whenever you see glass with no shade... They used to call people like this ‘gangsta’. I just use it for this reason – for fun. I am happy to see myself living gold – able to put on whatever I want. Now I am free. I can do anything I like – anything good. The pains I passed through, I am recovering. If I should pass through that stress, that pain, and things are still not okay, it would be very hard.”

A high castle wall
© Okungbowa Osamude
Fish of many colours swimming in clear water.
© Efe Bella

Above left, by Okuongbowa Osamude: “That wall reminds me of those days when we were in Libya, the prison, how we can’t escape. We have to see the brightness of the sun through a hole, and even money cannot pass through that hole. It’s under the gate and the men give us biscuits, just something that will sustain us for the day. I told you how I was trafficked, how I was kidnapped. They were asking for ransom, a huge ransom. It was more than the money that we bring. The emotion of the building, the way that I took the picture, it shows that it’s a prison where people have been trapped. No food, nothing. It’s really important, it’s one of my favourites.” 

Above right, by Efe Bella: “In my village, we have a river to catch fish. The fish can’t survive out of the water. 

Water is the source of life. Water can save, and water can kill. If I had fallen inside the sea on my journey, I wouldn’t have survived. Sea water contains salt, you can’t drink it – so even if you can swim, you won’t survive.”

Four hands touching.
© Omo Collis
Laundry hanging on an apartment balcony
© Tessy Gold

Above left, by Omo Collis: “They are showing love to each other because the Bible tell us to love your neighbour as yourself. We humans, our bodies are the same but our hearts is not the same.” 

Above right, by Tessy Gold: “This picture reminds me of my parents’ house that was sold. It was a beautiful house, fenced around, and there was gate. My parents were rich when they were alive, then I lost them and everything was messed up. Both my parents died in a motor accident when I was 13 years old. My uncle came to the city to claim the house, because in Nigeria women do not have any power in buying property like land or house. Then it was just I and my junior brother. He was too small to react over the house. Me that was a little bit grown, I couldn’t do anything because I’m a girl. They took us back to the village to stay with grandmum, and I couldn’t further my education anymore. My auntie came and she said she wanted to take me to the city to live with her. My grandmum told me to go and I was still crying.”

A pair of hands, resting in a pair of outstretched hands.
© Gloria
A woman, sleeping on sheets and a pillow, on the floor.
© Greatness

Above left, by Gloria: “Many of us, and almost all of us, have passed through too many temptations in life, too many struggles and trials – the trip here, how difficult it is. Libya is hell… the sun… we are in prison. But being out of Libya is to testify that now we are free. So I took this picture as a bond of consolation. We were trafficked and the antitraffickers are giving us the hope that they are going to deal with these issues.” 

Above right, by Greatness: “In desert there is no house. You can’t see house in desert. We just sleep outside. Back then they would load us like 50, 20, in the hilos [truck]. There would not be space for you to turn or to even look. So anybody that fall down they are not going to wait, that person will just die there. We spent the nights on the sand, it was very very cold. Back home in Nigeria, the sand is very good. There is no cold, not too hot. Very good. We do spread clothes on it, and sleep on it. We don’t need to go inside because the sand will be okay.”

Written by Daniela Valterio

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