Home » Campaigns » Visually affected. Campaigning the post-Oscar sexy.

Visually affected. Campaigning the post-Oscar sexy.

At a human trafficking event at the National University of Singapore in September 2012 journalist Benjamin Skinner spoke about the conditions of quarry workers in India to “put a human face on statistics”. He proceeded to tell the audience, “the vast majority [of slaves] are born into debt bondage” and predicted, “in the US, every half hour one person becomes a slave” (I can find no evidence for either statistic). As I sift through post-Award season media reverie commending the success of 12 Years a Slave and the Director’s subsequent recruitment as Patron of Anti-Slavery International and Ambassador of Polaris Project, I am reminded of a similarly unquestioned use of conflating narratives.

The intent of this post is not to vilify campaigners, or anyone involved in the film. It is intended to highlight another missed opportunity to engage in critical discourse with the public about the complications of human trafficking. There are clear lessons to be learned through international and intercultural dialogue, but that dialogue should be inclusive of conversations about weaknesses and differences, not only success. It should also be contingent on cultural and geographic context, mindful of impacts, especially in countries with emerging policy change. In discussions facilitated by this movie, we hope to see the production of evaluations completed by organizations that highlight the outcomes of such campaigns on public understandings of human trafficking.

Positively, media strategies have the power to attract attention to and impact awareness of an issue, create valuable partnerships and, at best, empower individuals. Organizations (and governments) use films from across the world to illustrate the global nature of human trafficking and generate public discourse on The Big Picture – human trafficking at large. In doing so, filmmakers frequently recreate individual case studies to put a face to a phenomenon. Such tactics are well-established, particularly for issues the public may find difficult to digest. Collectively, case studies are intended to show diversity inherent in the problem as well as commonalities that exist between exploited persons. However, transposing specific micro-level situations of abject reality into one-size-fits-all discussions of global trafficking risks relegating trafficking to an issue du jour. For instance, even if we assume ILO estimates for forced labor are entirely accurate (given the difficulty of estimating numbers of trafficking victims), the resulting discussion of human trafficking in this instance is diverted by a very specific parallel between the experience of one man in 1853 and the 20.9 million people purported to currently experience forced labor; the majority of whom are not drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. Gretchen Soderlund, specifically referring to sex trafficking, argues that the production and dissemination of victims’ stories “have helped to generate a belief that arguing over minute facts and details is irrelevant in the face of such a horrific form of abuse”. Focusing on what is resonant, rather than what is locally relevant displaces conversations about wider, structural inhibitors to change. Arguably, accessibility subsumes informed education as a preferred strategy.

The temptation in campaigning to draw links between the transatlantic slave trade and human trafficking is strong. According to Polaris Project’s website: “Since the release of 12 Years a Slave last fall, Polaris Project has worked with Fox Searchlight Pictures and Plan B Entertainment to raise awareness about human trafficking by highlighting the striking parallels between Solomon Northup’s story and the experiences of sex and labor trafficking victims today”. Similarly, the US State Department funded a video by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The video, which compares the transatlantic slave trade and trafficking in Cambodia (not Singapore), is used by the Embassy in Singapore to inform audiences about human trafficking.

We’ve previously voiced our concerns about the use of emotive language and abolitionist rhetoric. Films in particular showcase and reinforce exemplary narratives to generate audiences, such as in last year’s Eden: a sex slave’s story. Keri Lerum argues,

Stories of victims, villains, and heroes have underpinned countless documentaries, movies, news stories, talk shows, town halls, anti-trafficking conferences, activist campaigns, police stings, and FBI/ICE press releases across the United States since the turn of the twenty-first century.

Our Oscar winner is no different:

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE is based on an incredible true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) will forever alter his life.

The problem does not lie within the story itself, but within its use as a campaign tool. Extrapolating dominant, singular profiles of victimhood combined with interventionist methods that champion heroism over government interventions implicate limited solutions to the problem outside awareness-raising and rescue. It also detracts from rights-based solutions that aim to inform, protect, empower and provide recourses to justice. While good campaign messaging includes calls to action, after seeing a film about historic slavery to “learn about modern slavery”, is the public sufficiently equipped to do anything beyond “making a commitment to do something” (emphasis added) or calling a hotline (“help for victims is literally a phone call or text away”)? Moreover, is there any discussion about personal risk that may be inherent in undertaking scouting for trafficking situations and/or a nuanced conversation about identifying vulnerable populations for those who may wish to report suspicious activities?

NGOs that posit intervention as a singular moment in time distract from necessary systemic change. As Mike Dottridge articulated in the last blog post on the contentious use of the term, “slavery is something to be abolished or eradicated, using the hard edge of the law (law enforcement and the courts), not a problem that would require a wide range of preventive measures, including regulation and worker empowerment”. Overlooking these complexities impacts legislative measures and populations of exploited individuals that organizations claim to serve. Where instead is the Oscar nod to a film detailing legislative obstructions to fair employment laws? (Could we still get Brad Pitt on board?)

In the shadow of awards season stands another labor concern within the film industry. For the second year in a row, visual effects artists protested outside the Academy Awards. In short, foreign subsidies have created a global race to the bottom for the VFX industry, undergirded by a lack of protections for and unionization of artists (which activists are hoping to change). Displaced artists are subject to geographic table tennis in an effort to remain financially solvent among bankrupted studios manipulated by an increasingly profitable effects-driven film industry. In the spirit of discussing films related to labor, the short film Life After PI illustrates the consequences for studios trapped in this untenable business model.

The case above is of highly skilled (sometimes migrant) workers far from the human trafficking radar. My point here is that what is often missed in conversations aiming to engage the public are the reasons for which exploitation exists. Merely pointing to an economic (dis)advantage skirts broader, politically derisive issues of regulatory compliance, wage equity, contractual obligations, and the consequences of international trade and economics; further distancing exploitation from the inequality that often informs or constrains personal risk (and migration). Looking to extreme cases may create an “othering” and sympathy for individuals based on an ideal vulnerability, temporarily contributing to a heightened sense of social activism. However, arguably, attitudinal change is created when the scope of understanding is broadened – generating empathy based on relevance and common experience, creating long-term positive investments in and consequences for daily life. The scope remains large for anti-trafficking advocates to participate in conversations on the shared rights of all workers, including commonalities experienced on the slippery slope to exploitation, such as the (in)ability to collectively claim rights, the impact of standardized labor practices and the responsibilities of governments to protect workers.


  1. Kelly Prince says:

    Hi Kathryn, your article kind of summarised a whole section of my phd, but with much more flare and eloquence than I could muster. So thanks for that… I think…

    While I agree that the sledge-hammer approach of Hollywood misses the complex nuances of lived experience, I think the value is in its reach. It engages people emotionally and on a scale which (arguably) no other medium is able to achieve. In opening up a route to further information in a landscape where trafficking and exploitation have only recently registered on the public radar, blockbuster films create an opportunity for some individuals to go on to practice compassion. I think this aspect of film as a campaign tool is wildly undervalued.

    It may be that film is only the first step for campaigners who need to, and must, follow up with both depth of learning and options in terms of what people can do (which really need some work because you’re right, making a donation or calling a helpline are only two of a multitude of actions, small and large, that people can take and as campaigners, we need to be more creative). But, I need to have heard about something before I can do something about it. Then, in a world where hundreds of life demands are thrown at me every day, I need a social issue to grab me by the heart and shake my senses to such a degree I am compelled to find out more. I can’t think of any other vehicle which does this quite like film.

    In sum, should we not be considering how campaigns might use film more effectively, rather than whether they should use it at all?

    Many thanks for a great piece.


    ps. In the current climate of obsessive border control, I’m not sure truly victim-centred government intervention is even possible, so it may be that individual and collective heroism is essential, both in terms of what can be achieved practically for the here and now, and in building the critical mass needed for a sea-change in state discourse.

    • TTRP says:

      Hi Kelly,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with your point on the merit of generating emotive responses via film – I have no issue with this per se. I agree with you in that we should consider the ways in which film – or in fact other images – can be used more effectively. And, if and when images are used, they are done so in a way that engages the public further, rather than accepting a particular image or construct at face value. I believe this is relevant to campaign language as well. What we would love to see are examples of good practice in this area and/or at least mechanisms for evaluation in campaigning, for which I have yet to find any evidence (as a researcher or in practice). As an aside – please do email us as your PhD progresses, it would be great to hear more about your findings!

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