Behind the Headlines

Kay Chernush ’66 harnesses the power of art to expose the harsh realities of human trafficking and modern slavery.

Promised good jobs in the Amazon, landless laborers from the south of Brazil become ensnared in forced debt bondage. Living in squalid camps, workers cut down trees that are used to make the charcoal that’s used to make the pig iron that’s used to make the steel that’s used to make the products we buy on a daily basis. Enslavement is intertwined with environmental degradation—and tainted supply chains.

In 1974, when Peace Corps writer Kay Chernush ’66 was directed to bring back pictures with her story on the severe drought in Africa, she said, “Oh, that’s not a problem, I’m a competent amateur.” At the time, she didn’t know how to load a camera. “But having been to Sarah Lawrence, I knew how to learn, right?”

Over the 25-year photography career that followed, Chernush won awards, traveled the globe, and landed jobs for major publications, including more than 50 feature stories for Smithsonian magazine. But after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, she found herself needing a change of direction from her corporate and commercial work. So she pointed the lens on herself. Her unflinching series Self Examination documented her battle with cancer, and the process freed her to explore other challenging subjects, including human trafficking.

Her first assignment, an annual report for the US Department of State in 2005, left her shaken—and driven by the cause. “Having seen it up close, I couldn’t believe that in the 21st century, people in such numbers are enslaved,” Chernush says. “Next to genocide, modern slavery is the biggest human rights issue of our time.”

After photographing trafficking in more than six countries, she approached several NGOs in the field, seeking more opportunities to contribute her skills. “I really gave it a lot of thought, because I didn’t want in any way to re-exploit the victims I was photographing. Yet when you take a picture of a person, it has the potential to do that,” Chernush says. “My process dealt with these kinds of moral challenges.”

In 2011, she took her fight for human rights a step further, founding ArtWorks for Freedom. The nonprofit’s mission is not only to create awareness, Chernush notes, but also to motivate people through the power of the art, “to move people from education to engagement, and awareness to action.”

Compassionately revealing the stories behind the statistics is essential to inspiring policies that will combat trafficking, Chernush says. “So part of our goal is to change the messaging around trafficking and present it in an authentic way,” she says. “That means we need to present the survivors’ voices—and amplify those voices wherever possible.”