What to say? Well I went simply because I was asked to go by Anti-Slavery International, who are actually the world’s oldest human rights organisation.
At that time, in 2001, I was anxious to redirect my career – it was a year after an emergency heart operation and I felt that I wanted to get away from my commercial work and try and get back to the photojournalistic work which I had first started doing back in the early 1970s. So the enquiry seemed like the answer to my prayer.
The movement of children amongst families is not new. What has changed is the introduction of a commercial element where people give the parents money and then promise to look after the child.
My brief was to go to Benin, West Africa and photograph children that had experienced the trauma of being trafficked. I was to be accompanied by an ASI staff member who would conduct the interviews along recommended UNICEF guidelines. This means that you do not ask leading questions, such as “Were you beaten?” Rather they were to be asked, “What was the worst thing that happened to you?” and allow them to supply the detail.
However it became clear to me that if children were being taken from one country to another, that 50 per cent of the story must lie in the country to which they were being taken. Benin is a very poor country so people can be easily tempted by offers of money from somebody to take one of their children to a place where, the trafficker promises, they are going to be given a better life.
Hence I went on to Libreville, the capital of Gabon on my own where I had a contact with an organisation called ILEDA run by a Benin school teacher called Baba Apoudjac. Apoudjac was actively seeking out children that had been trafficked and was trying to rescue them and then identify their families and arrange for their return. I spent about five days with them, shooting in their reception centre and also on the streets.
When I returned to the United Kingdom, I tried to sell the story for a whole month but without any success. Nobody wanted to know and I had no independent corroboration, so finally I went to BBC World News.
Within 24 hours they had interviewed me and their stringer in Libreville had picked up on the story and came back with a piece about the Etrieno, a ferry from Benin to Libreville which had apparently sailed with a large number of children and had seemingly disappeared.
The Etireno finally turned up in Libreville but without children, giving rise to lurid stories that they had been thrown overboard to escape detection. In fact the ship had transferred the children at night to small fishing boats to enable them to be landed well away from possibly un-bribable officials.
Anyhow the hack-pack got into gear and they all ended up at my door as I was the only person with any pictures. The shots of the crying girl, Aminata, went round the world and it actually managed to stir some attention about what was happening to the children.
A year later, much to my amazement and delight I found myself clutching a World Press Photo Award. I found it hard to believe and certainly most of my clients did, for as one succinctly put it “F*** Mike, I never knew you took that kind of picture!”
I think the assignment succeeded because I had no expectations when I went: I simply went to see what was happening. Hopefully the world took enough attention for something to be done.
But for the children that’s a different story, albeit a free one. One had previously contracted HIV and was sick. One is dead.
Editor’s note: In August of that year slavery, albeit in the form of the transatlantic slave trade, became a world news item when the West was pressured to make reparations during the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Days later, the events of 9/11 drew away the media spotlight. However modern day slavery – most prominently the subtly termed ‘human trafficking’ – is reoccurring each day, in every corner of the world. Visit: http://www.antislavery.org.uk for more information.