Aline Deschamps celebrates the resilience of brave migrant women who have escaped an abusive labour system

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The work condemns the abusive kafala system in Lebanon, where women from Sierra Leone are recruited through a human trafficking network

We occupy an era where the fragility of human life is more visible than ever. Bodies are in peril everywhere we look. Simultaneously there is a refugee crisis, a climate crisis and a pandemic. The rise of the far-right is rolling back bodily freedoms while marginalised communities worldwide are still fighting for civil rights. In the collective consciousness, our vulnerability is palpable, but we are more attuned than ever to the body as a source of power. Historically bodily resistance on the streets has changed the world. It’s only through holding space and protest that we can improve the conditions we live in and make social structures less hostile.

French-Thai photographer Aline Deschamps uses her practice to create alternative narratives about communities at the extreme edges of reality. From her base in Beirut, she explores notions of gender, migration and cultural heritage while grappling with the fraught power dynamics of representation. In her latest work, I Am Not Your Animal, she collaborates with a group of migrant domestic workers from Sierra Leone. Trapped in the kafala system – an abusive structure of labour that exploits migrants in the Gulf states – they are forced to work in conditions that are unsafe and in some cases deadly.

From the series I Am Not Your Animal © Aline Deschamps.
From the series I Am Not Your Animal © Aline Deschamps.

“There is no regulation on their hours, so many women work from sunrise to midnight. They are poorly fed, forced to sleep on the balcony or kitchen floor and have their passports and phones confiscated. They are victims of modern slavery, and it’s a completely accepted part of Lebanese society. There is no sense of justice, no matter how bad they are treated.”

Under kafala, migrant workers are excluded from labour laws. They rely on their kafeel (sponsor) to secure legal working status in exchange for wages, food and board. Once placed with a host family, their duties include cleaning, cooking, childcare and taking care of the sick and elderly. Lebanon’s health system is non-existent, so this labour compensates for societal deficiencies.

“There is no regulation on their hours, so many women work from sunrise to midnight,” Deschamps explains. “They are poorly fed, forced to sleep on the balcony or kitchen floor and have their passports and phones confiscated. They are victims of modern slavery, and it’s a completely accepted part of Lebanese society. There is no sense of justice, no matter how bad they are treated.”

Beyond the punishing work, migrant domestic workers are subject to constant humiliation by their employers. Many are beaten and sexually abused until they risk escape, leaving in the middle of the night with no belongings. 

Lucy, a 26-year-old teacher from Kholifa Mabang, a northern province of Sierra Leone, had just given birth when she was groomed by traffickers. They promised her double the salary she was earning at the time if she signed up to kafala. She faced gruelling working hours, endless abuse, months without any pay. One of her employers tried to electrocute her. When she returned to her sponsor desperate for help, they sequestered her for days without food or water. She was forced into another employer’s house before escaping to live on the street. Simultaneously, her husband in Sierra Leona cut ties, losing hope she would return.

From the series I Am Not Your Animal © Aline Deschamps.
From the series I Am Not Your Animal © Aline Deschamps.
From the series I Am Not Your Animal © Aline Deschamps.

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the crisis in Lebanon, leaving its citizens in a heightened state of fragility, none more so than its migrant workers. “The conditions immediately worsened,” says Deschamps. “Their workload increased and the abuse increased. Many employers dumped girls on the street as they could no longer afford them.”

The rationale for this migrant labour is that it maintains the country’s fragile economy. Unlike Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines who have established relationships with the kafala system, the women from Sierra Leone are recruited through a human trafficking network that makes a lucrative commission on each worker they enlist. This double vulnerability increases trauma, rendering a never-ending nightmare.  

When Deschamps first met the group, 15 women lived in a small house in Tariq el Jdide, an impoverished neighbourhood in a southern district of Beirut. They had all escaped their violent employers and were desperate to return home. “We built trust over time,” Deschamps says. “As our friendship grew stronger and stronger, I witnessed their connection, conflict and their survival. The project was a co-creation. They would ultimately decide on how they want to be represented.”

In I Am Not Your Animal, Deschamps validates the complexity of their experiences, something the global news cycle is hopelessly inadequate at. Images of women abandoned on the street sleeping in tents, however unjust, tells us nothing about who these women are and what they had to overcome. Instead, Deschamps co-creates a mosaic of parallel individual narratives that centre on strength, resilience and a newfound sisterhood.

From the series I Am Not Your Animal © Aline Deschamps.
From the series I Am Not Your Animal © Aline Deschamps.

“We all have our complexity and contradictions. If we manage to communicate that  – then it could be a great potential change in photography.”

Contemplative domestic portraits, embedded with handwritten letters to loved ones, go some way to explore the heavy psychological context surrounding the lives of these young women. The scenes, both tender and tension-filled, illustrate how our bodies contain relics of our emotional past. The indelible marks left by trauma are present while ensuring their situation does not define them. The letters, often to their children, partners or mothers, speak to their emotions, personalities, opinions and desires. “We all have our complexity and contradictions,” Deshamps says. “If we manage to communicate that  – then it could be a great potential change in photography.”

One of the conditions of human existence is being unconstrained – the longing for freedom, connection and liberation. Deschamp’s most memorable photographs are from the group’s first trip to the beach. Together they dance, play and swim. We see them as fully expressive and embodied figures, asserting a sense of self, belonging and aliveness. The images celebrate everyday moments of joy and friendship, things the oppressive kafala regime denied them. “In a country where the Black body is commonly viewed as the one of a servant – a Black woman acting freely on the beach in Lebanon is a radical stand,” Deschamps explains. “Watching them living for themselves – free to move and not being subjected to an employer – is so powerful.” 

Deschamps is trying to document, as far as possible, the point of view of the women themselves. Even if their sense of space and liberation stops at the edge of the photographic frame – she stills wants to honour the space. The project thinks about the black, female, migrant body as not just a site of peril but one of possibility and beauty. “When you change the collective imaginary,” Deschamps says. “That’s when you create real change.”

alinedeschamps.com

From the series I Am Not Your Animal © Aline Deschamps.
Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.