'The Dark Figure' by Amy Romer
Slavery is not an issue confined to history, or an issue that exists only in certain countries. It is a global problem that is still happening today. In 2015, there were 3266 recorded victims of modern slavery in the UK alone.
We caught up with photographer Amy Romer for a chat about her ongoing project 'The Dark Figure'. The series documents and maps the areas and neighbourhoods, where victims have been held as modern slaves.
1. How did the project come about?
About 18 months ago, a friend working for Devon and Cornwall Police told me that, to his surprise, D&C police were formally shifting their focus away from incident related street crime and instead, turning their attention towards modern day slavery. The thought being that, petty street crime is often committed by those most vulnerable in society, so by approaching such incidents with a more open mind that asks, who might be placed in such a situation where they feel the need to commit petty crime and why, police allow themselves the opportunity to start recognising potential victims, before condemning them petty criminals.
This was also around the same time that the 2015 Modern Slavery Act had come into legislation, which attracted a lot of media attention. I guess I recognised modern slavery would be something we would only hear more and more about in the coming years, so I decided to dive into the subject and try to make some work on it.
2. Was it always in your thoughts to shoot this as a landscape project, or did it organically develop into this form the more you worked on the project?
The landscape idea came very early on, in fact it was probably my first idea, but I dismissed it for a long while as I envisaged making a documentary film. During a very long research period, the BBC were broadcasting documentaries about modern slavery and I’d seen a few other films made by charities, which made me back away from the idea. I wanted to contribute something fresh and new and that played off my strengths, so I came back to my original idea, picked up my camera and visited three trafficking sites in London, making the beginning of my project. Lesson: listen to your instincts.
3. When I saw the image you took in Bournemouth, my initial reaction was shock that modern day slavery could take place somewhere I thought I knew so well. What impact do you think the work will have on others like me who recognise or can relate to a location they know well in the series? Also what impact would you like it to have?
Your reaction is precisely what I’m looking for Tom. There is a strong inherent assumption that slavery couldn’t possibly happen in our own towns. This is due to a combination of factors. Firstly, our minimal understanding of the historical events of the abolition of slavery. Secondly, today’s media, which largely ignores stories of modern slavery, particularly in the UK. And of course, because of the hidden nature of slavery itself which undoubtedly makes most cases of modern slavery and trafficking unknown. By photographing the neighbourhoods where we know trafficking has taken place, I hope to undo such assumptions because it is only through mass public awareness that any long term change can happen.
4. The captions in this series play a massive part to give the images some real context and meaning. For me the combination of the intriguing landscapes accompanied with the hard-hitting captions works perfectly. Give us your thoughts on the importance of the captions in this body of work, and how you feel they complimented the photography in the series?
Thank you. Indeed, without their stories these pictures are not just meaningless but are boring to look at. My stories encourage the reader to look deeper, a lesson in itself we should not ignore as it is ignorance that allows such crimes to take place.
It was also of prime importance that my work informs people. As a photographer, it is my responsibility to become a specialist in my chosen subject, in order to do it justice in pictures. Modern slavery and its new legislation is complex and not at all understood by the public, so it was of no question that my work needed to allow the opportunity for learning. Of course, each story is unique and raises many of its own complications, so it seemed sensible to write up each story, including any legislative detail I felt was important.
5. Essentially in this project you weren’t photographing anything, nothing physical anyway, even though you had locations where the crime took place, did you find this restrictive or was it quite freeing?
Creatively freeing. No doubt. As a documentary photographer, you spend nearly all of your time relying on other people. Whether it be the people that you’re gaining access from, the people that you’re photographing or the people you hope to publish your work. So to discover a story that took at least some of those hurdles away, allowed me a lot of creative freedom.
6. How have you found shooting a project in an almost investigative journalism style? Is it something you would like to continue with on different projects in the future?
It’s hard to say but it certainly seems to be something I’m finding myself drawn towards. I enjoy unpicking complex stories, but I often find that the stories I think could be great are often not particularly graphic or visual, which can be problematic! But then look at Edmund Clark… he seems to manage ok!
7. Given that you knew what had taken place in the locations you were shooting, did you find it intimidating, given the knowledge you already had?
Sometimes yes. I’m carrying some very sinister stories around with me when I shoot, which I’m thinking about as I’m trying to find a scene to represent a story. Maybe it’s inevitable that I sometimes find myself feeling uncomfortable. I think I felt most uncomfortable finding scenes for the stories of sexual exploitation. Maybe because this would be my greatest fear.
I actually included an account in the newspaper I published, which was a diary entry I’d written after feeling particularly uncomfortable on a shoot in Bolton. I’d found some women’s clothes (pants, bra, handbag included) in an short underpass off the road I was supposed to be photographing for a sexual exploitation case. Of course, what I found wasn’t related to the case, but I couldn’t help placing that sinister narrative in my head onto what I saw in front of me. I persuaded myself to walk away and get on with my shoot as I had a long day ahead, but after 20 minutes I decided I should go back and look for an ID in the handbag so I could report it to the police. When I got back the handbag had been taken, leaving the clothes in a pile on their own. I felt like a hypocrite as one of the key reasons for making my project is to challenge such behaviours. I photographed the piles of clothes and the underpass and wrote an account which has been included in the publication, so maybe my actions have been partly rectified, but it’s the perfect example of our shy and irresponsible attitude towards criminally suspicious scenarios.
8. What made you opt to get the work published in the form of a newspaper?
The 2015 Modern Slavery Act is a new and complex piece of legislation and with it comes an array of equality issues, particularly for migrant workers. Although my captions allow a wide open space to discuss legislative issues, I wanted to create something that would enable me to talk about such issues more graphically, in a more digestible format.
I am also hugely inspired by street art and wanted to create something that could be read and shared in the community, like the daily Metro. Included in the newspaper come instructions on how to rearrange the pages to form a street art exhibition. I like the idea that people can pin or paste up pages on the wall and become part of the community to help raise awareness of modern slavery.
9. Would you like to explore other publishing possibilities with this body of work i.e. an exhibition, photo book?
I’m not sure a photo book is appropriate for what I want to achieve right now. Maybe in the future. My current concern is that I want this work to be accessible to all, which is why I’ve tried to design it’s output in such a way where it allows you, the reader, the opportunity to share and exhibit. Of course, an exhibition done in the right way could help promote that idea. At the moment, money is the defining barrier to any of these options! But do not fear, I will make it happen… and if anyone has any spare money and isn’t a fan of slavery - give me a bell!
10. Can you give us one thing you have learnt from taking on this project, it can be a positive or a negative?
Patience. Perseverance. And some more patience. And some more perseverance. Etc.
11. Is there more to come from this series, possibly different avenues to explore? Or are you looking to move onto new projects?
Both. There is certainly more to come and I’m excited to be searching new avenues of the visual representation of modern slavery, but I’m also hoping to build on the landscape series. The bigger the series, the stronger the message.
With regard to new projects, I’m a photographer and I’m hungry for new projects, always. It’s been hard coming out of uni and finding my feet, as I’m sure most graduates will agree. My priority has been more - where shall I live? What shall I do? Where shall I go? This is soon to be sorted and once it is, I’m definitely ready for a new adventure!