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Chronicling Conflict

Photographer Mimi Chakarova has traveled the world chronicling war, sex trafficking and assaults on human rights. But instead of shocking viewers, her images provoke important questions.
 
 
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When Mimi Chakarova was in Ghana working on a photojournalism project, someone in a car full of young men grabbed the strap of her camera bag and attempted to drive off with it. Chakarova wouldn’t let go of the camera case, and was dragged behind the car for half a block until the case’s double-stitched strap broke. “I just couldn’t stand the thought of some German tourist buying my Leica for $100,” she says.

Chakarova, a documentary photographer who teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, is currently immersed in two long-term projects, one documenting the military standoff in Kashmir and the other focusing on the sex trafficking of women in Eastern Europe. Born in Bulgaria under communism, Chakarova grew up in a village “running barefoot and playing with the chickens.”

When she was 13, her family traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, on a three-month exchange program sponsored by her father’s research position at Johns Hopkins University. Chakarova spoke no English, and the inner-city public school she attended classified her as developmentally disabled.

As a teenager, she worked three jobs in order to afford her first camera, which allowed her to communicate visually rather than verbally. She went on to study fine-arts photography, receiving a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, but she became frustrated with the endless introspection of the art world and turned to journalism, finding the field’s outward gaze refreshing.

Chakarova, who is now 29, has traveled all over the world, documenting living conditions and human rights in Africa and the Caribbean for her graduate thesis, and shooting the daily lives of Cubans surviving in the country’s two rival economies—the black market and withering communism—in photos that are featured in the book Capitalism, God, and a Good Cigar: Cuba Enters the Twenty-First Century .

“My mother asked me recently, ‘Mimi, it’s taken us so long to get out of poverty, why do you keep going back?’” Chakarova recalls. “I said, ‘Because it’s so familiar, Mom.’”

Kashmir
The disputed region of Kashmir, located on the borders of the two nuclear powers of India and Pakistan, has suffered an estimated 85,000 fatalities as a result of the conflict hinging on the national and religious strife between the Hindu and Muslim countries. Flare-ups between regional militants and Indian troops stationed in the region create a climate of perpetual war.

Chakarova’s photos of Kashmir, which were exhibited at the San Francisco World Affairs Council of Northern California this past winter, depict a world of torture, forced relocation, decimated villages, and traumatized civilians. Chakarova focuses on the war’s impact on civilians, specifically women, whom she believes disproportionately bear the brunt of the war’s hardship.

In one photo, beds are lined up across the front lawn of a psychiatric hospital. The facility is filled beyond capacity, as the war results in not only physical injuries but also cases of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The text accompanying the exhibit explains that women in the region attempt suicide with an unusual frequency—on average, five to seven attempts per day are recorded. (In hopes of forgiveness, attempts are most frequent on Fridays, the holiest day of the week in Islamic tradition.) Most choose to consume organophosphorus pesticides used in agriculture.

A young woman working in rural development, quoted in the exhibit, declares, “I am fighting a war on two fronts; I am fighting a patriarchal society and also dealing with the conflict that’s existed here since I got out of school.”

After photographing a massacre that included women, children, the elderly, and the disabled, Chakarova chose to exhibit only a photograph of the evidence left behind. After the 23 bodies were removed for burial, a flip-flop leaned against the padded armrest of a crutch, and a woman’s shoe rested against a dark stain of blood on the autumn leaves of the forest floor. Because viewers are already inundated with violent images, Chakarova prefers to capture and display those that raise questions, rather than titillate with shock value.

Instead of titling her photos, Chakarova captions them with descriptions of the conflict’s history and excerpts of interviews. A man clasps the head of his tortured brother, who is perhaps dead; beneath the image is his, rather than Chakarova’s, explanation of what happened: “They blindfolded him, poured salt and pepper in his wounds, and electrocuted him.”

In a picture of a military bunker, an enormous gun leans against a wall plastered with photos of naked blond women and clothed Indian fashion models, diligently cut out in silhouette; “i love my india” is scrawled across it in white chalk. Chakarova’s caption describes her encounter with a general who, as a matter of national security, forbade her from photographing inside the military camp.

“Kashmir was incredibly lonely,” Chakarova remembers. “All of my friends were male journalists. As a woman, once it gets dark you can’t wander the streets because there are soldiers everywhere.” She took to sleeping with her film in her pillowcase, partially to guard it but also to stave off feelings of total isolation. “The majority of people I’ve met don’t want to be part of India or Pakistan; they feel like they’ve been used.”

Chakarova will return to Kashmir this summer, and plans to release the project as a book.

Sex trafficking
As economic conditions continue to deteriorate, increasing numbers of women and girls from postcommunist Eastern European nations are being trafficked into the European Union, as well as Asia and beyond. From Dubai to Israel to Southeast Asia—wherever women migrate to after leaving their economically depressed homelands—prostitutes are known simply as “Natashas,” and women with Eastern European complexions are assumed to be sex workers.

On the streets of Turkey, men holler the name at Chakarova. While it’s not uncommon for impoverished, desperate women from these regions to immigrate to wealthier cities to find employment in sex work, trafficking is something else entirely. Many of these women and girls are duped into indentured sexual servitude, often believing they are being transported to work in the mainstream service industry.

“One girl grabbed my arm and said, ‘Do you want to know how it was? Thirty customers per day, the youngest was 11 and the oldest was 83,’” Chakarova says. She quotes another woman: “Some of the men felt sorry for me when they saw I was pregnant, but they still had sex with me.”

Chakarova and her collaborator, writer Lauren Gard, traveled to Moldova, which has the highest incidence of trafficked girls and, not coincidentally, is also the poorest country in Europe. Located between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova’s living standards declined after communism fell; poverty is still on the rise and wage discrepancies between men and women are growing rapidly.

Through a shelter frequented by girls who had been trafficked, Chakarova and Gard met Olesea. Their project retraces Olesea’s path from Moldova to Turkey, where Chakarova’s fractured Russian, dredged up from childhood, allowed them to pose as girls looking for work in order to meet one of Olesea’s clients. Through him, they made contact with her pimp.

“Here, I have my credentials and my affiliation with the University of California,” Chakarova explains. “There, that was all gone—all he saw was a girl from Bulgaria looking for work. Imagine having a man stare at you and evaluate you like cattle based on your appearance, the way you talk, and how you move. Everything about you has a certain price. This pimp was notorious for doing sadistic shit to these girls. I had seen the scars and I had heard the stories. These guys know how to perform abortions and how to hit you so you don’t bruise. They raped the girls many times. He didn’t know that we knew any of this. He was giving us his best facade, which is ‘We’re gonna be partners, 50-50.’ I knew he was offering to buy us, and if we were ignorant and desperate village girls, we would look at him as our savior.”

For reporters who want to do more than interview girls after the fact, there are two routes to a firsthand account of sex trafficking. Female journalists must pose as girls looking for work; male journalists can pose as customers. Chakarova comments that because these men are playing the part of customers—and, later, of sympathetic would-be saviors of trafficked girls—the images that result from their charade too often resemble soft-core porn, playing up the sex appeal, rather than the horror, of sex trafficking. “In a lot of the cases, the girls are wearing a bra and bikini and lots of makeup. It’s almost like lingerie ads. The photos show no insight into who they truly are.”

Chakarova sees this as contributing to a common inability to see the underlying causes of trafficking. “I read everything there was on sex trafficking in Moldova, and always there was the same bullshit, which is ‘Why is the demand so high for girls from Moldova? Because they’re incredibly beautiful.’ That’s the stereotype, and journalists publishing these photographs and printing these words are adding to the stereotype, because people read this and think, I want a girl from Moldova because they’re gorgeous. Guess what? These girls who have been trafficked and at the high schools in the villages, they’re not supermodels. They’re just ordinary girls with pimples and imperfections. Ordinary girls living in really poor circumstances.”

With her basic Russian, Chakarova was only able to ask simple questions of the women, like “What happened?” But when she did, they would spill over with information. “On several occasions, I said, ‘Why are you telling me all this? Why are you giving me so much?’ and they said, ‘You’re the only one who isn’t judging me for what has happened to me.’”

Chakarova spent time photographing the shelters in Moldova where the women were living. “To me it’s really important sometimes just to put the camera away and be a person, be compassionate, and be yourself. The main thing for me is just to be there and make girls laugh, dance in front of them, say something in Russian that’s really silly. Just make them laugh. Do you know how good that feels when I know what they’ve been through? They’re at a shelter and we’re all smoking and they’re just giggling like they should be because they’re 19 and 20. I don’t have pictures of that, because I was actually experiencing it. A lot of photographers are always behind the camera and quit experiencing what’s in front of them. I want to be able to say, ‘Fuck it, I’m not going to have these shots, I’m not going to take pictures right now.’ They see that: ‘So she’s not just taking and taking and taking, she’s actually giving something in return.’ That’s what I mean when I say I leave behind pieces of myself.”

To contact Mimi Chakarova or view her photographs and other projects, visit www.mclight.com. Capitalism, God, and a Good Cigar: Cuba Enters the Twenty-First Century, edited by Lydia Chavez, features more than 70 of Chakarova’s photos.

Ben Bush is a frequent contributor to XLR8R, Kitchen Sink, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and the Portland Mercury.