Journalist and filmmaker Ana Palacios is the author of the photographs in “Niños esclavos. La puerta de atrás”, an exhibition that can be visited at the Salesian Missions Museum in Madrid (Spain) until March 27. Palacios toured several centers that work for the recovery of children subjected to sexual and labor slavery in Benin, Gabon and Togo, including two Vedruna centers: the Kekeli and Arc en Ciel centers, to which he conveys “great confidence” for “the work they do”, generating “safe spaces with so much love and care”.
You define yourself as a “journalist by training” who uses photography “as a tool for social change”. What social change do you aspire to promote with this exhibition?
To make visible a violation that affects millions of children, of which the first world knows very little. If we do not know what is happening, it will not arouse our interest or indignation and, thus, it is difficult for us to want to transform it. That is why the first step to social change is “knowing”. To know the context, the motives, the consequences, the personal stories…
What dimensions of the problem are we talking about?
Child slavery affects one in four children in sub-Saharan Africa. According to figures from the International Labor Organization, 23.9% of minors live under some form of slavery, the highest rate in the world, in this part of the world.
Surely, when we think of child slavery, our imaginary is reduced to the prostitution of girls in Asia, children in Latin America chopping stones in quarries or child soldiers in Africa. However, the reality is much less sensational, although just as dramatic. Most of these minors are sold by their families for small amounts and a vague promise of a supposedly better life that translates into a situation of subjugation and dependency. They may end up working as domestic servants (“interns”) in a lower-middle-income home, or begging from sunrise to sunset, selling water on the roadside or manning a vegetable stall in a market on the outskirts of a large city. Likewise, most of their fundamental rights are eliminated with the stroke of a pen: the right to education, to health, to grow up in a family, to play… And, of course, they will suffer physical and psychological abuse if they do not comply with the obligations that their “owners” assign them.
I trust that at least some people who visit the exhibition will be aware of this situation. This way, perhaps, they will empathize with this cause and, with a little luck, it will lead them to action.
Before the exhibition ‘Child Slaves. La puerta de atrás’, the book and documentary of the same name were released. What reactions do you have? Was it the ones you expected or did you intend to provoke?
The book, the exhibition and the documentary were born at the same time, in June 2018. My intention has always been to give maximum diffusion to the project, and I thought that if I communicated it in three different ways I would have a better chance of achieving it. I wanted to be able to offer the content versioned for different audiences, ages, territories, interests… It is not always the same audience who comes to see a documentary in a cinema or on a platform, as the one who decides to buy a book or who enters a room to see an exhibition.
By the way, why the name “the back door”?
“The back door” refers to the exit from slavery. It is a project that does not talk about child slavery as a problem, but documents success stories of some of these children who manage to get out of this traumatic situation and their personal process of transformation from a scenario of subjugation to another in which their rights will be respected and protected. It is a metaphor to explain that there is a “back door” that some of these thousands of child victims of slavery find, open and go through.
A frequent criticism is that no one today would think of publishing the faces of minors without all kinds of signed consents; with African children, however, such precautions are not so common. Where do you draw the line?
I graduated with a degree in journalism and have forgotten almost everything I studied. However, I remember all the values that this profession demands. Among the most clear-cut ones, which have always accompanied me in my professional development, is deontology. I would never cross, at least consciously, a line that would harm or disrespect the people I write about or photograph.
Before starting the project, I researched which NGOs offered me ethical guarantees and worked to eradicate situations of child slavery in West Africa. I chose who I wanted to do the project with and met with their managers to carry out the work under their umbrella and, of course, the issue of identity protection was addressed. The legal guardians of the minors I have documented, most of whom were NGOs themselves, agreed with the approach of the proposal to document the issue and it fell within the framework of what was legal. Before starting to photograph, it was decided that we would change the names of the children and not specify their precise geographic location in order to protect them, and this is how it has been carried out with the almost one hundred children who appear in the project, always using images that respect and dignify the child.
Do you think that progress has been made in raising awareness, or does the representation of African children continue to fall into clichés and welfarist attitudes, easy tears, etc.?
I would say that there is more awareness among agents of change (NGOs, media and institutions related to cooperation and the third sector) of how harmful and unfair this simplification of stories, the perpetuation of stereotypes, and the single narrative is. I believe that more attention should be paid to codes of conduct that require clarifying the causes, co-responsibilities and consequences of victimizing communication. But I would also say that there is still much work to be done to raise awareness, that there are still years to go before we can break these simplistic, but very effective, ingrained schemes of the naked child with the fly in his eye to narrate Africa and the activities carried out in impoverished countries.
With Herminia Álvarez, who represented Solive, Fundación Vic and Vedruna at the opening of the exhibition.
You portray life in Salesian, Messengers of Peace and Vedruna centers… About the latter, what impression did your visits to Arc en Ciel (Gabon) and Kekeli (Togo) generate in you?
They are centers where you breathe a lot of love. The fact that they are communities of women religious working with minors gives a warm feeling of maternal care. I felt it was a safe space for them, with so much love and care and, at the same time, a lot of responsibility in the procedures and protocols in the processes of sensitization and rehabilitation of the minors. This combination lends seriousness to the projects being carried out in these centers and gave me great confidence in the work they are doing. And well, I was also very grateful because they made me feel at home!