Carmignac laureate Lizzie Sadin bears witness to the trafficked women of Nepal

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Rita, 17, Chabahii, northern district of Kathmandu, April 2017. Copyright Lizzie Sadin for the Fondation Carmignac.

The Carmignac Photojournalism Award is now in its eighth year. It may be one of the least well known, and certainly one of the most productively lucrative, of awards designed to encourage courageous and in-depth journalism, in this case focusing on “an area of the world at the centre of geostrategic conflicts, where human rights and freedom of speech are violated” (Fondation Carmignac, press release). This year Lizzie Sadin is the Carmignac Laureate, and her project is now on exhibit at the Hotel de l’Industrie in Paris, as part of the PhotoSaintGermain festival, running from November 3 to November 19 this year in galleries, shops and public buildings in Paris’s 6e arrondissement.

The Carmignac award is particularly exciting for photojournalists because it generously funds a proposed project. The grant of 50,000 euros enables an individual to travel, purchase equipment, enlist aid, and survive while dedicating time and energy to an engrossing project. Afterward, the grant funds a traveling exhibition and a monograph. For Lizzie Sadin, the first phase meant traveling to Nepal in the spring of 2017 and seeking the cooperation of individuals and organizations fighting the obscenely high rate of human trafficking within and beyond the borders of that beleaguered nation. Sadin’s photographs are riveting because not only do they portray in large color format the victims of this trafficking, but they also capture the interactions that characterize the illegal trade in girls and women to Kathmandu, the capital, and across Nepal’s open border with India., where the girls and women are sent on to the Middle East, the Gulf, and Malaysia. How many? The estimates are 20,000 to Kathmandu and 300,000 (three hundred THOUSAND) beyond the nation’s borders. The women are made to work in brothels, in clubs, or as “domestic servants” (a title which in this case generally includes sexual slavery). If they resist, they are usually confined, starved, beaten, or otherwise molested.

Some of the photos are almost glamorous, ironically because in order to preserve their privacy, some of the women hold traditional shawls and scarves in front of their faces, leaving only their eyes locked with the viewer’s or deflected in shame and fear. Some photos were taken covertly, and these are labeled as such. One of the most disgusting and horrifying is a club owner simulating the rape of a dancer for the enjoyment of his customers. We learn from the prose accompanying the exhibit that rape is a dominant, if not universal, theme in the interactions between the traffickers, the purchasers or “employers,” and the women they victimize and hold in bondage.

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King Road Street, central district of Kathmandu, April 2017. [One of the covertly taken photos.] Copyright Lizzie Sadin for Fondation Carmignac.

Deception, trickery, and seduction with promises of greater happiness and wealth characterize the human trafficking industry.  Sadin’s photos of police officers, in cooperation with nonprofit anti-trafficking organizations, demonstrate the complexity and  persistence of these layers of deception. Cooperating police have ramped up their sophistication in discerning and catching individuals in lies about the trade, often by using the traffickers’ and the victims’ cell phones, and those of the women they are “accompanying,” to phone the women’s family members or even just to check the previous numbers called by the suspected traffickers. If agents continue to be suspicious of the pairs or groups crossing the Indian border or traveling through the Kathmandu airport, they have the girls and women copy down their contact information so that families can at least confirm that their loved ones left the country on a certain date and by a certain route. Why is this so complicated? Partly because the victims of the trade are still at that point laboring under the delusion that the promises are real, and that the police and the social workers stand in the way of their happiness. Thus they see it as their self-interest to perpetuate the untruths (traveling with grandfather; going to see family; traveling to meet fiancé to get married, etc.) needed to secure release from the police station or border control point and continue this journey toward a lucrative job or freedom from poverty and village life.

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Birgunj, district of Hetuda, May 2017. Copyright Lizzie Sadin for the Fondation Carmignac. This woman traveling with children seemed suspicious to the policeman and the Maiti Nepal organization, who questioned the woman.

For often the victims simply disappear, prohibited or unable to contact their families with news of their welfare and whereabouts. Even more tragically, deaths are grossly underreported. Coroners’ reports of women dying abroad most often list “heart attack” as the cause of death — if true, neglecting the precipitating causes of physical and mental abuse, malnutrition, overwork, and isolation.

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Kopila, 18, Usha Bar, district of Kathmandu, March 2017. Copyright Lizzie Sadin for the Fondation Carmignac. “Kopila is in a cabin, a private space hidden from view, where the man can touch her.”

Lizzie Sadin moved to photojournalism from education and social work. Her commitment to social justice and exposure of human abuse and climate degradation is longstanding, and she has carried out work in Israel, Kosovo, the Amazon, and Silesia, as well as India, Nepal and Europe. Not surprisingly, in the mid-1990s she became part of Robert Doisneau’s Rapho agency. Like her heroes Dorothea Lange, Eugene Smith, Walker Evans, and Sebastian Salgado, she maintains high production values. Composition that serves both narrative and aesthetic purposes makes her photos compelling, arresting, intriguing, and — again — complicated. It is exciting to visit her website, lizzie-sadin.com, to view the generous showing of her multiple projects so far. I went there to see among other things if her style, reflected in the Nepal project, had remained consistent across subjects and themes. Several of the photo portfolios are black and white, such as the astonishingly intimate and disturbing project on domestic violence in France, called “Est-ce ainsi que les femmes vivent?” (Is this how women live?). As a Francophile American, I was doubly distressed to find one of our most prevalent social problems repeated in France. But then, what else is the Nepal project about but the degradation of women and the persistence and perpetuation of patriarchy anchored by brutality, both individual and social? Not surprisingly, a number of Sadin’s projects carry forward these themes, reflecting on child brides, sexual tourism, adolescent mothers, and the exploitation of women in Israel. Here is a link to a short video featuring her discussing (in French, yes, but the images are good, for you anglophones) the Nepal exhibition.

And how silly of me to be at all coy or academic about this problem of the patriarchy. As I write today in Paris, in early November 2017, we have been swimming in the slimy ooze of — to shift the liquid metaphor — a FLOOD of graphic, infuriating and horrifying revelations of  serial sexual attacks on and intimidation of women by multiple prominent, “respected” men. If they and their millions of “fellow” abusers hadn’t left so many damaged and, oh yes, deceased humans in their wake, it would be at least darkly comic. At last! At last! Because women have known this all along. From our age in single digits we learn how to protect ourselves from male aggression on the street, in public places, in private places, in our work, in our classrooms, in our offices (leave the door open), and tragically, at home. Some of us DON’T learn. But think about this. How many men have to learn to protect themselves from the violent and random aggression of women? Come on, be honest. Let’s really be honest with each other.

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Lizzie Sadin. I cannot find a photo credit for this wonderful portrait. It appears with an article credited to Margaux Rambert in Psychologies, 2010.

The PhotoSaintGermain is held at the same time as the even larger annual event, Paris Photo, whose core weekend is November 9-12 and core exhibit space is the Grand Palais. I cannot tell you how thrilled I am finally to be able to take in this huge serving of world photographic creativity. More later.

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