Rendering visible the invisible, an interview with Isabella Gomes

Isabella Gomes is a public health journalist and infectious disease epidemiologist from Ontario, Canada and one of the 24 photographers selected by our panel of experts as a runner-up in the This is Gender 2020 photography competition. As part of our Representation Matters series, we take a deep dive into Isabella’s image.

Her image may at first appear unremarkable, not dissimilar to a thousand family snaps. A woman sits in the park with her dog. She poses demurely towards the camera and smiles while her dog takes refuge from the sun on the shaded ground. Indeed, when the panel first encountered the image, it was quickly dismissed as being too quotidian, too unchallenging. We unanimously felt that although a nice image, it didn’t speak particularly loudly to the theme of the competition- gender and health. It wasn’t until we read the caption that we realised the true power and innovation of the image. 

The woman in the photograph is Margeaux Gray, a 40-year-old from Kentucky, U.S.A., who was sex-trafficked at age 5 by a family member. Today, as a result of the physical abuse and emotional trauma she sustained, she suffers from visual impairment, gastroparesis, peripheral neuropathy and complex PTSD. She is photographed here with her guide dog, Junebug.

We were taken aback. The disconnect between the caption provided by Isabella and the seeming banality of the image brought up some uncomfortable questions. Why did we so easily dismiss this photograph and its depiction of gender? Why were we shocked to discover the traumatic context of the image? What preconceptions did we carry of what a sex trafficking survivor looks like and why were we unable to recognise that Margeaux may have had such a story?  

When Representation Fails

Sex trafficking is surrounded by othering myths. We often, even if subconsciously, assign a race, age and socioeconomic status to victims of sex trafficking and designate the practice of sex trafficking as a foreign activity far removed from the ‘banality’ of our daily lives. 

But where do these notions come from? A quick Google image search reveals a troubling set of visual tropes reiterated again and again. Young, often Asian women, hands bound, bruised and cowering in the corner of a room. They are often highly stylised, with a shallow depth of field blurring the surroundings to produce a sharp focus on the figures of the often faceless victims, which are, in turn, lit by a hard undiffused light source that creates harsh shadows, complimented with a sparse colour palette, dark, cold- a far cry from the warm hues and pleasant pose of Margeaux in Isabella’s photograph. 

Images such as these sensationalised and stylised depictions frame the way we perceive victims of sex trafficking, but they aren’t representative. While undocumented migrants and runaway youths are some of the most vulnerable to exploitation, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities, homeless people and those with low-income are also some of the most vulnerable and 83% of confirmed US sex trafficking cases in 2011 were in fact US citizens. 

Isabella explains that these stock images of what sex trafficking victims ‘should’ look like have real implications. ’Not only do such images reduce victims of sex trafficking to their victimhood and erase their own identities and stories, but perhaps more dangerously and problematically, is that we begin to assume there are easy-to-read visual cues when it comes to identifying a victim of sex trafficking. But this is not the case’, explained Gomes. 

‘Sex trafficking is still a largely invisible phenomenon in society. Relegated to the peripheries of the human rights landscape and firmly situated within the domain of criminal justice, it’s too easy to allow our minds to jump to images of hand-cuffed pimps and chained victims. 

As a society, we often fail to recognise abuse and trafficking even when confronted with it and this is, in part, due to the way we have learnt to ‘see’ victims.’ 

Isabella continues that this is most troubling in the healthcare sector. She explains, ‘Most victims will visit a health care provider at some point while being trafficked. In most cases, victims will have visited emergency departments, and many will visit pediatric clinics and orthopedics, plastic surgery, and OB-GYN departments as well as dentists’ offices. When healthcare workers are poorly equipped to recognise the real, often invisible, signs of trafficking, we risk sending victims back to their abuses and losing a vital chance to help. We must think critically and reflect about how we represent and see sex trafficking victims.’ 

Rendering the Invisible Visible 

When Isabella set out on her project on sex trafficking, she was committed to representing the women she met truthfully and respectfully and was adamant not to fall into the trap of reductive and problematic representational tropes. Working closely with a third party that had established relationships of trust with the survivors, all participants in her project were encouraged to take an agentive role- not only in the direction and boundaries of the conversations and research but also on the level of representation. Each participant chose the location for their image and shaped the image they wanted. 

As Isabella notes, ‘These women didn’t want to be depicted in their vulnerability, to be defined purely by their experiences of sex trafficking. That kind of imagery didn’t represent how they felt necessarily at the time. Similarly, I didn’t want to enforce my own framings and preconceptions but rather wanted to take the lead from the women themselves and capture their resilience, their ongoing struggle to cope with their trauma and the consequent health implications. I wanted to tell their stories in their own language’. Margeaux chose the park. 

In the park on a sunny day, Margeaux sat on the bench and had her photograph taken by Isabella. The moment caught then is left untouched. No trite filters, no stylised edits, no colour correction. The framing is simple and familiar. This is Margeaux- a survivor of sex trafficking, who struggles with several health implications, and also a woman who is resilient, dignified, and with agency, who goes to the park with her dog. 

By subverting our expectations of what this image holds, Isabella inverts the othering myths that surround survivors of sex trafficking – the racialised image of young, sexualised, vulnerable girls, and whose health problems are exclusively related to sexual health – STIs, unwanted pregnancies, abortions. Her image is honest, sincere and a far cry from the standard imagery of sex trafficking. 

Isabella’s approach is something that we can all learn from, particularly in global health. As a sector, images are often used to give a human face to data. But we must question what face is being shown, the consequences of narrow portrayals and whether it is truly reflective of the issue. 

Isabella’s image forms part of her broader project on sex trafficking, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. You can read more about her research and Margeaux’s story here