If you want to laugh hysterically, just check out the blog “Pinterest Fail.” The Pinterest Fail blog’s tagline is: “Where good intentions come to die.”
People really meant well and wanted to do something great, and it just… didn’t turn out so well. If you haven’t gotten quite enough cringe-worthy moments, haven’t seen quite enough “good intentions” gone awry, then try googling “anti sex trafficking poster.” A lot of what you’ll see is best described as “click bait” — but often the “bait” is the very substance of exploitation itself; this is toxic stuff and undermines our goals fighting trafficking.
In an attempt to get the world to pay attention to the dark realities of human trafficking, we might actually be hurting the people we’re trying to help and the audience of the communication piece. When it comes to marketing anti-trafficking efforts, good intentions abound but we can do better.
1. Don’t make victimization sexy.
Violence…sex… violent sex… violence… sexy violence… violence… Game of Thrones does it seamlessly, and ratings soar! So why shouldn’t we? After all, this issue is pretty heavy, and reminding people that really cute girls are affected by it might make it all a little easier to think about. Oh wait — that is madness.
Sexualizing victimization is degrading. People fighting trafficking must take a stand against exploitation and human degradation.
Beware: while we may want to make the issue more “approachable,” we never ever want to achieve that by making images about the subject of trauma and abuse seductive or sexually provocative. In a culture where sex and violence too often appear side by side and become intertwined, we must be careful when situations come up where we are handling stories and subjects that involve both. Human beauty is to be celebrated, but sexualizing victimization is messed up stuff and something to be consciously avoided.
2. Avoid reinforcing a skewed power dynamic.
Because exploitation and trafficking is founded on reinforcing or establishing a power dynamic that renders the victim (seemingly) powerless, those of us fighting this can’t stand on that same foundation.
If we believe in freedom and dignity, it should come across in the images we choose.
At Love146, we think even simple things like camera angle matter: choosing photos taken from a high angle can place the viewer in a position of power and invite the viewer to condescend in pity to help. Photos which are taken at eye level, or even a lower angle, highlight the strength and resilience of the child and invite the viewer to partner in further empowering the child. The traffickers saw these individuals as people with very little power, and their sense of self in the situation of trafficking hinged on the identity of being the powerful one. One of the worst things we could do in our communications is simply hold the victim in “powerlessness,” and place the viewer where the trafficker left off. Along with that, any language that over-exaggerates a power disparity probably isn’t healthy (such as, “YOU are her only hope”).
3. Steer clear of sensationalism.
No image could capture the horror and deep injustice of child trafficking. However, At Love146 we still avoid sensationalizing the issue in a way that would be intended to produce an effect of shock, fear, or guilt in the viewer. Shock and guilt aren’t sustainable motivators. Trading honest, dignifying presentations of the issue for short-term reactions isn’t really a great idea.
More importantly, sensationalism prevents bystanders and victims themselves from recognizing actual situations of potential trafficking in their midst. We avoid images of infants, taped mouths, blood splatters, cages, suitcases (with people inside), ropes, etc… These images may be relevant to certain specific and extreme cases of human trafficking, but we believe they actually interfere with helping victims self-identify and prevent the public from spotting trafficking. Exaggeration can also devalidate the true and more commonly shared experiences of survivors of human trafficking, alienating the public from sympathizing with common trafficking cases.
Use images to build human connection & hope.
The individuals pictured in our communication is someone’s sister or brother, someone’s daughter or son. A good guideline is this: if it’s not an image you’d like to see of your sibling or child, don’t use it. Because we believe in the reality of hope and the power of love, our written policy at Love146 is that any image used that reflects a child’s victimization must be placed near an image that illustrates strength, resilience, and hope.
Many people working in fields of psychology, social work, healthcare and even journalism are familiar with the term “vicarious trauma,” which is the idea that people exposed to the severe trauma of victims can also experience traumatization and its effects. At Love146, we’re mindful of this reality for our staff and have resources and support. But people walking down the street and scrolling through their Facebook timelines didn’t sign up to be traumatized by our anti-trafficking posters and graphics. Drive-by traumatizing does not promote freedom and dignity for all people. However… if people can experience vicarious trauma, then perhaps instead they can also experience vicarious healing and recovery. To that effect, we see significant amounts of people supporting Love146, connecting that effort to their own childhood trauma and journeys of recovery. That is the power and responsibility of communicating about this issue: the more we display the reality of light in dark situations such as these, the more we can give everyone the hope they need and deserve in their lives.