CICS Presents Photo Exhibition on the Stories of Human Trafficking Survivors

By Valerie Franklin (The Cascade) – Email

Image credit: University of the Fraser Valley / Flickr

Maybe you’ve noticed them as you wait for the bus, or as you haul your overdue books to the library: a series of haunting, intense portraits of men, women, and children displayed in the rotunda of UFV’s G-building.

The portraits are the work of Vancouver photographer Tony Hoare, who has spent the last three years working with organizations that combat human trafficking in Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, and Mexico. Betrayed: Portraits of Strength is the summation of his work: a collection of portraits of individuals who have been victims of human trafficking in these three countries, accompanied by the stories of how they survived their ordeals, told in their own words.

Taking action

The exhibit has been on display since September 21, when dozens of students and faculty gathered in the rotunda to celebrate the exhibit’s inaugural launch and hear Hoare speak on his work. Satwinder Bains, director of UFV’s Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies (CICS), and CICS faculty associate Adrienne Chan introduced Hoare as a slideshow of his photographs and film clips played on a screen behind them. Both Chan and Bains described the importance of recognizing the global connections that links humanity, as well as the role of work like Hoare’s photography in helping us to understand that kinship.

“This is a testament to our commitment to working with issues that affect us, that we can actually work on making a difference on a global level — first by raising awareness, and secondly by taking action,” said Chan.

Betrayed and sold

The title Betrayed is fitting, as each of the survivors was betrayed by someone they trusted. Their stories are all different, linked only by the scope of their horror and depravity: child soldiers, forced prostitution, organ theft. The people to whom these stories belong, many of them children at the time of their exploitation, were abducted, tricked, drugged, manipulated, or sometimes kidnapped brazenly in broad daylight — and the perpetrators were often people they knew. Ruth Kamarra, one of Hoare’s Sierra Leonean photography subjects whose wary eyes draw and hold the gaze, was tricked and sold by Edna, an older woman she trusted as a mentor and friend, to a pimp. In the story that accompanies her portrait, she recalls asking the pimp where Edna was.

“Then he said: ‘Don’t you know that I bought you from her?’ It was as if someone took a knife and stuck it in my heart,” she told Hoare.

In their own words

Hoare began working with trafficking survivors about three years ago, when a colleague asked him to take some portraits to provide a face for the work that she was doing, but his work quickly took on a life of its own. He began working with Young Power and Social Action, a grassroots nonprofit organization based in Bangladesh, to connect with trafficking survivors who were willing to share their stories.

“I do my work with organizations — not Western aid organizations that are going over there, but organizations started by the people in the places that I go to, who have specific problems they want to solve,” Hoare explained.

In the course of his work, he decided to take notes by filming some of his photography subjects speaking about their experiences. As a result, the stories are told in the subjects’ own words, through a translator.

“As you read these stories, they’re all in first person. They’re actually the words of the people that [these events happened to],” Hoare said.

Stories and images

Hoare’s work touches the same heart-wrenching nerve that has made blogs like Humans of New York light up social media over the last several years: beautiful photography, when paired with stories of authentic human experience told in simple words, creates a powerful empathetic connection with the viewer.

“Pictures are one thing,” said Hoare, “but the stories, I find, are a beautiful testament to the human spirit, and they’re relevant to all our lives, all our struggles. The situations might be different, but the inherent humanness of each one of these people [is the same].”

Although the exhibition at UFV is the first time Betrayed has been on display, Hoare explained that he had tested this style of exhibition before in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. After putting up a series of photographs, Hoare asked his audience to look at them and see what was relevant to their lives. One audience member admitted that he was unable to find any meaning that resonated with his own life and experiences in the images.

“When he did that, we only had the images up,” said Hoare. “And then we put up the stories, and people went around again and thought about them and read them, and later on that same individual got up and said, ‘Now that I’ve read the stories, these images have everything to do with my life.’”

Many of the survivors in the photographs shared their stories out of obligation and responsibility. Hoare recalled asking one young man, “‘Why are you sharing this with me now?’ He said, ‘I want the story to get out there. I want people to read about it and understand, because it’s something that I can do that gives meaning to the experience I have.’”

Trafficking in the West

Although it’s tempting to think that the trafficking of vulnerable people only happens in third-world countries, the unfortunate truth is that it happens in first-world countries as well.

“It all happens in Canada,” said Hoare. “We’re all capable, I think, to recognize and be aware that when a number of humans live together, some people will exploit other people.”

After the UFV exhibition closes on September 30, Betrayed: Portraits of Strength will travel to 10 other cities. But Hoare is far from finished.

“These are stories not from Canada, but I want stories from Canada,” said Hoare. For his next project, he’s seeking North Americans and Europeans who have suffered through human trafficking and are willing to entrust him with their stories, either anonymously or publicly.

Hoare emphasized how honoured he is to record and share these accounts.

“Although the circumstances are difficult, when reading them, they’re also such a beautiful way to see how human beings make the best of a situation regardless of what’s going on, regardless of tragedy and suffering,” he said.

Survivors of human trafficking willing to share their stories can contact Tony Hoare confidentially at

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