I am 150 feet down an illegal mineshaft in Ghana. The air is thick with dust and heat. The lack of oxygen makes it hard to breathe. The brush of sweaty bodies passing me in the darkness reveals the activity in the shaft. I can hear soft murmurs of miners talking, but mostly the shaft is a cacophony of men coughing and stone being broken with primitive tools.
Like the others, I wear a cheap, flickering flashlight strapped to my head with a tattered elastic band so I can see the slick tree branches holding up the sides of the three-foot-square hole dropping hundreds of feet into the earth. My camera dangles from my neck as I grasp the branches with my feet and hands while descending. Adrenaline courses through me when my hand slips, and I suddenly remember the slave I met days before who lost his grip when the mixture of exhaustion and sweat had gotten the best of him. He fell countless feet down the shaft.
As I sit in my home today, those very men are still deep in a hole, risking their lives - and often dying – without choice or compensation. Even while in the midst of hundreds of slaves, it is hard for me to conceptualize the notion that they are forced into labor without pay, under threat of violence, and cannot walk away.
In 2009 I was invited to be the sole exhibitor at the Vancouver Peace Summit with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. Among the countless wonderful people and organizations I met there, I was introduced to Free the Slaves. We began talking about slavery - actually I began learning about slavery. I had no idea this unfathomable tragedy was far more pervasive than at any other time in human history, with a conservative estimate of 27 million people ENSLAVED today. It saddened me and infuriated me and started a fire in my heart. Within weeks I flew to meet with Free the Slaves and asked how I could help.
The project we created together sent me venturing to parts of the world where I had been many times before, to places I call my 'other' home. But this time I would see the skeletons hidden in the closet.
In India, I was introduced to the brick kilns. The strange and awesome site ignited images of ancient Egypt and Dante’s Inferno. Enveloped in the severe temperature of 120 degrees men, women and children were cloaked in a heavy blanket of dust while mechanically stacking bricks on their heads - up to 18 at a time - carrying them from the scorching kilns to trucks hundreds of yards away. The crush of bricks under their footfall filled the surroundings. Deadened by monotony and exhaustion, the slaves worked silently, repeating this task 16 hours a day. There were no breaks for food or water, no breaks for toilets and the idea of urination inconsequential. So pervasive was the heat and dust, my camera became too hot to touch and ceased functioning. I had to sprint back to our vehicle to clean my equipment and run my camera under the air conditioner every 20 minutes – a luxury slaves never have.
The great Himalayas led me to children hauling stone for miles down steep mountain terrain to trucks waiting at the road below. The huge sheets of slate were heavier than the child carriers themselves. The children hoisted them with their heads as they set out on the perilous journey down.
In Nepal I met women, young girls and boys who had been stolen from simple villages in the mountains and trafficked to cities to be used for sex. Similarly, in Lake Volta, I met Ghanaian children who had been lured from their communities after being promised an education, only to be sold as slaves to fishing villages. These children have been lost to their parents and are forced to work endless hours in boats on the lake though they cannot swim. The skeletal tree limbs submerged in Lake Volta frequently entangle the fishing nets. Horribly, the weary children are thrown into the water to free the trapped lines – and often drown.
Sadly, the horrid list of enslavement goes on. But it doesn't have to. Where there is will, change is possible. We can be that change. I hope these images will awaken a force in people who view them, people like you. I hope that force will ignite a fire, and that fire will shine a light on slavery. For without that light, the beast of bondage will continue to live in the shadows.