The December Stories are a series of first-hand accounts of the ONA community’s work on important causes and issues around the world. Today, Jeremy Snell, a freelance humanitarian photographer and cinematographer, shares about his work telling difficult stories with the International Justice Mission.
Capturing content for small organizations and large brands takes me across the globe. One country that has really stuck with me is Ghana. I travelled there twice this year with an organization called International Justice Mission (IJM.org).
I’ve travelled with IJM quite a bit over the last year, helping them bring to light the realities of modern slavery, however these trips to Ghana were different. Our team went there to tell stories from Lake Volta – the frontline of child slavery in the country’s fishing industry. My work with IJM involves creating a library of images that helps them tell the stories of human rights violations around the world. Cybersex trafficking of minors in Manila, forced labor in coal mines in Chennai, sex trafficking of minors in Mumbai – the list goes on. I hear many of these horrific stories first hand, and my job is to craft scenes and moments that help visualize these horrors and the work IJM is doing to prevent it.
To do this, I photograph actors and volunteers in a way that puts them in the shoes of those enslaved in that region. However, the subjects in front of my lens are never actual victims. It’s often quite heavy material to deal with, but to some degree, I feel like I’m a bit separated from seeing the actual realities of theses injustices while in the field.
This was not the case in Ghana.
Over the course of both trips there, I spent close to a month on and around Lake Volta. Our team would spend entire days on small fishing boats on the water, navigating through the eerie trees emerging from the lake’s glassy surface. We saw countless boats on the lake, many of them with small children as young as 6. Children are often in charge of untangling nets from all the trees and shrubs underwater. They are very good at holding their breath for long periods of time, but because the water is quite murky, some become tangled in fishing nets and drown or get pierced by sharp tree branches.
For thousands of kids on Lake Volta, fishing is all they know. Many are taken away from their families and are convinced they will be going to school, but instead are enslaved in this forced labor which threatens their life and childhood. I was still photographing volunteers and actors from nearby villages for the content for IJM, but what made these trips so different was the firsthand exposure to slavery I witnessed every day there.
Lake Volta has an ominous presence to it. It is both mesmerizing and terrifying. I will never forgot the memories I have of those kids on the lake, and I hope they continue to haunt me into action. IJM has been working tirelessly for the last 3 years to support police and government to enforce the Ghanaian laws against trafficking, as well as to organize rescue operations for kids on the lake. No child should ever have to live like this, and it’s a reality that we have the power to help change.