More Than A Survivor: The Anti-Trafficking Campaign That Tells The Real Stories of Survivors

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International is one of the world’s busiest airports. Millions of people pass through each summer. This June, Delta Airlines passengers got to experience an innovative photo exhibit that is traveling the country. On their way to terminals they looked at photos of accomplished women—doctors, artists, real estate agents and teachers—who are survivors of sexual abuse and human trafficking.

“People don’t invest in things if it looks like there’s no hope,” says survivor Audrey Morrissey. “I chose to stand at a podium in my picture, carrying a message of hope and enlightening people about the problem.” The women photographed, ages 20 to 60, have persevered through their traumas differently. In the years since escaping their traffickers, some chose to become visible leaders in the anti-trafficking field as adults while others decided keep their experiences private. For a handful of the survivors involved in the More Than a Survivor campaign, this was their first time sharing what happened to them in public.

The U.S. State Department explains that for a sex act to be considered trafficking, it must have been exchanged for something of value under the use of force, fraud or coercion. These tactics can involve: traffickers holding or destroying the victim’s IDs, threatening violence to their family members and branding their bodies with tattoos to show ownership. The overarching commonality is that a person who is trafficked feels unable to leave the situation. The definition is slightly different for victims under the age of 18. In such cases force, fraud or coercion do not need to be proven; any sex act for something of value is considered trafficking.

22,191 cases of sex trafficking in the United States have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center since 2007, with significantly higher figures for slavery in the U.S. overall once labor trafficking is considered. It remains a largely hidden form of abuse, despite documentaries like Very Young Girls and books like Girls Like Us  that shine a necessary light on the issue.

Photos Courtesy of GEMS / J Shotti Photography

The documentary, book and photo campaign were Rachel Lloyds’ idea. “If chains or being kept in a basement is what you’re looking for then you are going to miss all these other examples of exploitation,” Lloyd, founder of Girls Education Mentoring Services (GEMS), the largest service provider for young female victims of domestic trafficking and commercial sexual abuse in the United States, tells Ms. “The most dangerous thing that’s happening in the movement is the imagery that’s being put out there. Overwhelmingly, almost a hundred percent, are images of young white girls chained with duct tape over their mouths. It’s not accurate.”

Survivor leadership is integral to the success of GEMS, which operates under a belief that combating modern day slavery is possible—especially if the voices of those directly affected are featured in the creation of advocacy campaigns and programming. Each year, GEMS offers shelter, education and trauma support to 440 girls, ages 12-24. They also put on conferences for survivor leaders nationwide who combat human trafficking in their communities. Lloyd invited survivors to participate in the MTAS campaign in hopes that real faces and stories would raise awareness and add depth to advocacy efforts.

Photos Courtesy of GEMS / J Shotti Photography

This approach seems to be working. A range of groups including Delta Airlines, Cornell University, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center have reached out to GEMS to coordinate viewings. The photo exhibit began the summer at a Rotary convention with 40,000 attendees in Georgia and is headed to California for events with medical professionals next.

“I think campaigns like this level the playing field for us,” says Jessica, a survivor leader who attended GEMS’ most recent conference in April. “Especially in movies, people portray us as throw-aways, nasty, illiterate. We should be seen as real people.” Rachel agrees: “I’ve been very public saying that we are full human beings instead of walking trauma stories,” she explains. “More than a story. We can say that’s my trauma story, but my story is still being written. That’s just one piece.”


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.