Photojournalist Mimi Chakarova tells CIR about her experience filming undercover for “The Price of Sex,” a documentary about young Eastern European women who have been drawn into a netherworld of sex trafficking and abuse. Gaining extraordinary access to young women who were supposed to be silenced by shame, fear and violence, Chakarova illuminates how even though some women escape to tell their stories, sex trafficking thrives.
Woman on screen (subtitles): He told me to give him a blow job and exactly how to do it. I said, “Why is this necessary?” “Don’t you know why you’re here?” “I’m here to be a waitress,” I said. That’s when he told me, “You’ll be serving alright, but not as a waitress, as a prostitute.”
Mimi INTV: These are young women who were promised legitimate jobs after the collapse of communism, then were duped, sold against their will into sexual slavery. There are three central characters in the film.
Mimi VO: Vika was the first woman I interviewed. Over the course of four years, she told me what happened to her.
Mimi VO: To break her in, Vika was forced to have sex with a constant stream of the laborers who built the city’s skyscrapers. Up to 30 men per day would pay the Madame $3 for a few minutes of sex with Vika.
Mimi INTV: People often ask me, “Why didn’t they escape? Why did they stay?” They have no concept of what that world is like.
Woman on screen (subtitles): I thought we were going to Moscow – Moscow! But I didn’t know where Moscow was. I only knew how to work in the field. When we arrived, we realized we were in Turkey.
Mimi INTV: She doesn’t understand the language and she doesn’t have an identity because her passport and all of her paperwork has been taken. Once you see how complex that escape can be, you start understanding why they are jumping. One woman in the film jumped from a building and sustained heavy physical injuries.
Mimi VO: When she woke up, Jenya couldn’t feel anything below her waist. She spent nearly a month in the hospital, but before she could receive surgery, the pimps were allowed to take her back to the brothel in Aksaray. No one cared that she was partially paralyzed from the fall. Or that she defecated on herself. The clients continued coming. It was business as usual.
Mimi INTV: Who is reporting on sex trafficking? One of the biggest problems that I have is that it’s being looked at primarily from a supply point of view.
Man on screen (subtitles): Young people have two choices: become criminals, or go abroad and risk being trafficked.
Mimi INTV: It is easy enough to document how there is no running water, no electricity and how villages have emptied out. But it is the other side of that coin…
Man on screen: ...This is about capitalism. You invented it. You brought it to the world. We are just being the latest students of this system.
Mimi INTV: …That equation is much more challenging because now you are dealing with wealthy countries like Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Greece, England, United States, you’re going to these places and asking questions and wanting to enter this dark world controlled by pimps, organized crime units, and expose that.
Mimi VO: I promised Vika I would find my way to Dubai, where she was trafficked.
Mimi INTV: And the only way to do that as a woman was to pose as a prostitute. It is through the corruption of police officers, border patrol, and all the other key players of the way trafficking works that this continues to exist.
Mimi VO: These cops travel to the poorest countries in Europe for sex tourism.
Mimi in film: …Which countries?
Man in film: Belarus.
Mimi in film: Romania?
Mimi INTV: It shows you the banality of evil. They can be uncles, they can be shop owners, they can be politicians, and everyone is involved in this and they don’t really see it as a problem.
Mimi VO: Anna Revenco, who is in charge of an NGO called La Strada sets up her explanation of why trafficking continues.
Anna: The big discrepancy between poor countries and rich countries. The big discrepancy between access to justice. The high-level corruption. What? I’m not sure you want an answer from me unless we tackle these issues; all these hotlines will not solve the situation.
Mimi INTV: To get as many people to know this issue and understand this issue and expose this issue as I possibly can. That was my objective. All of the details of the story took four years to put together. It didn’t start off as a film. The idea was because I’m a photojournalist, I would go back to the region where I grew up.
Mimi INTV: I grew up in Bulgaria. And I would go to Bulgaria as well as other countries in the Balkans and photograph women who had managed to escape the sex trade and get to know their stories, not realizing how difficult it is to visually document this because the stigma, because of the shame and also the fear that they go through after they escape.
Mimi INTV: It was a moment of interviewing one of the girls who was in the film and watching her smoke and she had this ash getting closer and closer to her finger tips. And I remember thinking as I was looking at her, “It’s going to burn her fingertips and she doesn’t really care because she’s not really present.” And I was thinking that this is the image that I want to capture, but I cannot capture this as a still photograph. As someone who is documenting this woman’s story, I need to take it to another level because people need to see.