Between one and three hundred thousand women are being trafficking in the USA today. Many of the girls started on the streets at twelve or thirteen. Around 85 per cent ran away from home.
This is the subject of Tim Matsui’s The Long Night, which won the 2015 World Press Photo’s Multimedia competition for best feature documentary this month.
As one of the oldest and most respected photojournalism and documentary photography competitions, World Press Photo’s award is testament to the subtlety and strength of Matsui’s film, and the years he spent researching the subject.
Although the film began life with a grant from the Alexia Foundation, Matsui first began looking at sexual violence and victimisation fifteen years ago, before creating a non-profit organisation that tries to engage communities in the tragedies taking place in their midst. “As a result, I think I’m able to bring a fairly deep understanding of the issue and its root causes,” Matsui tells BJP.
Set in Seattle, The Long Night explores a street-view perspective of sex trafficking, following the police charged with trying to limit it, and the families who have lost children to it. But The Long Night’s core strength lies in its intimate focus on two girls caught up in the mire of prostitution.
The first, Natalie, has managed to leave prostitution behind her. Raised in a working class family in the American suburbs, her experience of adolescence is instantly relatable; tired of her small town existence; outgrowing her parents rule; keen to spread her wings. Natalie appears to be, in a broad sense, a very normal teenager. “I just wanted to rebel,” she says. “To not have to listen to rules or worry about getting straight A-grades at school.”
At fifteen, Natalie ran away from home. Within a matter of days, she was forced to swap sex for money. The film highlights the ease with which young girls like Natalie find themselves on the street and the practiced ways older pimps prey on them with promises of love and money.
Matsui also reveals how social media is used for online courtships, a forum in which any girl, from any background, can be groomed for prostitution. As one Seattle detective says: “Not all victims come from cycles of abuse or extreme levels of poverty. Everybody’s child is at risk if we don’t address this.”
Embedding with the police that spend their days arresting the same girls week in and week out, Matui shows how they managed to found a charity designed to house and rehabilitate victims of sexual exploitation. Lost within these layers is Lisa, 19, a heroin addict who has sold her body since the age of 13.
Lisa clearly trusts the filmmakers, allowing us access to her world as she looks to try and escape the cycle of addiction and abuse of her teenage years. Matsui’s skilfully uses this closeness without ever being intrusive or disrespectful to her.
Hussain Currimbhoy, documentary programmer for the Sundance Film Festival and jury member at World Press Photo, says: “It’s although you were meeting her almost face to face and talking with her and understanding her problems through her own eyes.”
The director has revealed that he and Lisa remain in contact- it’s evident he’s invested in helping her make her own way on her own terms. In a recent interview, he said: “I’m incredibly honoured by the award, but her recognition of the work means so much more to me.”
The Long Night is not a polemic. It doesn’t propose a solution. Instead, it forcefully reminds us that sex trafficking doesn’t purely exist on the fringes of society.
“Trafficking is a symptom of greater underlying social issues,” Matsui says. “We need a more concerted effort to design and fund harm reduction programs that serve both addicts and trafficking survivors. That’s essential, I think.”
As Currimbhoy said when Matsui was awarded the prize: “Lisa is a symbol for a very large problem happening in the US, happening in Europe, of sex trafficking and sexual abuse that is rampant, and has happened for a very long time.”