How Close is it to You?

2 Apr

Photo ©Robyn Paton

Forced prostitution and trafficking of women are frequently in the news. The horror and the fear behind these phenomena is not easy to imagine. This autumn, the exhibition ‘ Journey’ confronted visitors with the awful story of Elena from Moldova.

Corina Karstenberg

Last autumn the ‘Journey’ exhibition opened to visitors in The Hague. From 14 October till 24 October 2010 seven shipping containers were parked right in front the Dutch national Parliament, under the watchful eye of the sculpture of William of Orange in the Plein (the Square). Visitors to the Journey exhibition encountered the story of one young woman, Elena, who was trafficked into prostitution. The exhibition relates her fearful journey into the world of forced sex work. The exhibition Journey was developed by the Helen Bamber Foundation, in collaboration with Elena V. herself from Moldova, the victim whose story is central to the whole Journey experience.

The background of founders of the Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF), Helen Bamber and Michael Korzinski, is relevant in understanding the Journey exhibition in its proper perspective. We will consider their background first. Helen Bamber is now 85 years old. She was born in London in 1925, and at the age of 19 went to work as a volunteer in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp just after it was liberated. There her work was to help Holocaust survivors cope with their trauma and start to piece their lives back together. She chose this work partly because she was raised in a Jewish family with Polish roots. At home, her father had read regularly from Hitler’s Mein Kampf in order to warn young Helen of the human capacity for evil. Helen Bamber’s work in Bergen-Belsen also helped her to overcome her own fears of confronting this evil.

Forty years later, Helen Bamber started Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (MFCVT), the first ever charity in the UK devoted to treating victims of torture and Mistreatment, and advocating on their behald. Her work with the Medical Foundation brought Helen Bamber into touch with Dr. Michael Korzinski, who himself specialised in therapeutic support of traumatized victims of torture and abuse. His approach involved giving special attention to the physical aspects of torture.

Since 1990 Helen Bamber and Dr. Michael Korzinski have worked closely together to develop the Medical Foundation’s own innovative approach, which involves a combination of physical and psychological therapies. In 2005, their long-standing collaboration resulted in the creation of the Helen Bamber Foundation.

The tenth anniversary of the National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking

The Journey Exhibition happened shortly before the 10th anniversary of the National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking (NRHT), in 2000. The current Rapporteur is Ms CE Vermeulen-Dettmeijer, someone who fulfils her function with great commitment, and is supported by a staff of seven. The NRHT is an independent body, with a monitoring and advisory role in relation to government. The NRHT gives both solicited and unsolicited advice. In 2000-2006, the first NRHT was Ms AG Korvinus, who was succeeded by Ms CE Dettmeijer-Vermeulen. In 2008, the second Rapporteur saw the Journey Exhibition in Vienna, and was so impressed that she raised the idea of organising the exhibition in the Netherlands as part of a series of events to mark the 10th Anniversary of NRHT in 2010. A conference on trafficking also took place in The Hague, on October 14-15, around the same time as the Journey Exhibition was showing to the public.

A long road

Elena is one of the many people that Michael Korzinski treated, helping her to deal with her trauma. In 1999, at the age of 17, and shortly after the death of her father, Elena, in her naivety, falls into the hands of traffickers. Under false pretenses, a woman has persuaded Elena that she can find work for her in England as a doctor’s receptionist. When Elena arrives in England, instead of the promised job, she is presented with a bill for £20.000. She is told she must pay this bill by working as a prostitute. Elena refuses at first, but the dealers rapes her and forces her to start working in prostitution. She wears a wig, has a new name and clothing that make her into a new person, someone she no longer recognizes as herself. After several years as a virtual slave, Elena finally manages to escape the horror of this situation, and comes into contact with the Helen Bamber Foundation. It is the start of her healing process.

 After being in therapy for a long time, Elena finds work as a secretary. One day there is a discussion among her female colleagues, and the conversation turns to who are “victims” of traffickers. Her colleagues are unanimous in thinking that these women have only themselves to blame, since they are mostly gold diggers. Elena runs upset to the office of Michael Korzinski, who was nearby and tells him what has happened. He asks her what she would like to do about it, and she answers that she wants people to fully realize what it means for a victim of traffickers to be in that position. She wants them not to judge these women so easily. Michael Korzinski responds by putting Elena in touch with Emma Thompson, chairman of the Helen Bamber Foundation. Elena speaks with Emma Thompson for two hours, about the events in her life and how she wants to set the record straight. Emma Thompson gives Elena and herself an assignment: to think of seven words that best describe what Elena had experienced. Each word would be written individually on a matchbox wrapped with white paper. At a subsequent appointment both had written down exactly the same words: Hope, Journey, Uniform, Bedroom, Customer, Stigma and Resurrection. This was the beginning of a new way of travelling, and this time it was an artistic journey that the viewer sees as if in a confrontational mirror when they go to the Journey exhibition.

Seven containers

The seven shipping containers in the Journey exhibition represent seven stages in the life of Elena as she moves through the experience of being trafficked. Seven famous artists were invited to work with the seven words, and each has challenged the common sense of the viewer in a creative way. In a sense, the artists seduce the viewer to gradually move into the past life of Elena and the harsh conditions under which she was forced to work, live and survive.

In the container Hope, for example, artist Michael Howells gives a glimpse of a new future, which worked out completely different than expected. In the moment that Elena looks hopefully towards a future in which she will develop her talents, she says: “I always dreamed I could be someone special. I just wanted to go to school”. The black painted container Journey, created by Mick Martin, also presented the visitor with a distinctive sound journey, best listened to with your eyes closed. The sounds of Journey express how uncertain and unpredictable Elena’s future was. “At the beginning of my new journey. I drink in the blue sky and I thought: This is the beginning of my new life.” In the third container named Uniform, designed by Sandy Powell, Elena is measured with a totally different identity with a wig, a new name and clothing who were not her own choice: “The person who I was died. The men saw what they wanted to see. I hated looking in the mirror. It was not me anymore. I had become something else and I hated her.”

Photo ©Robyn Paton

Bedroom, created by artists Sam Roddick and Trevor Robinson is perhaps the most confrontational of all the containers. Elena’s experience is brought to all one’s senses: the smells and squalor of a room where Elena would sleep, have sex and work day in and day out is depicted, along with a moving and squeaking bed. That she continually had to have sex with men against her will is depicted in an unambiguous way. There was little or no cleaning possible, and no fresh air. As she says: “I remember the smell. It was disgusting. We bought these little pine tree cut-outs to ‘freshen the air’ It was cheap. We had to pay for it out of our ‘pocket money’. The smell mixed with the stink of the men. I cannot bear that smell. It’s toxic and makes me vomit.”

Photo ©Corina Karstenberg

The container called Stigma was designed by the sculptor Anish Kapoor, and shows the stigma that a victim of such a terrible experience will carry with her for the rest of her life. At first glance it looks like a black circle painted on a white oblique plane, but if you walk towards the shape, it turns out to be a black hole. This symbol expresses the continuing stigma even after you’re released from being a forced prostitute, as well as the long road that has to be travelled before some kind of normalization is possible and the sense of shame diminishes. The text explains: I haven’t seen my families for eight years. Maybe they think I am dead. Maybe it’s better this way.”

Photo ©Corina Karstenberg

Resurrection, The last container was created through the collaboration of Emma Thompson and Mike Dempsey. Here you finally hear Elena speak for herself as she tells her story and about how she feels now: “I only think about my daughter. She is all I have left to care about.”

 Around the corner

To mark the opening of Journey in The Hague, Emma Thompson came to The Hague. During her various appearances in the Netherlands, she visited the exhibition in the company of Queen Beatrix and the National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking, Mrs. Dettmeijer-Vermeulen. Throughout, you could sense Emma Thompson’s great sense of commitment and enthusiasm to the struggle against trafficking. In her various interviews, she spoke up against human trafficking, and sex trafficking in particular. Where Elena was forced to work as a sexual slave was in West Hampstead, just around the corner from where Emma Thompson herself lives, and right next to where she would take the underground. This single fact strikes Emma Thompson as very significant. Her question to the public is: “How Close Is It to You?”

Photo ©Bastiaan van Musscher

Interviewed by Frenk van der Linden for the television program NCRV Altijd wat (Always Something), Emma Thompson expressed frankly her deep concerns about the direction in which the Netherlands and Europe are moving: “I think one of your main difficulties, which you share with my country, is that the problem is often conflated, confused with the question of immigration. Therefore you have a country which is becoming less and less emphatic and less and less compassionate about those who are viewed as outsiders[…] We are going to have to live with systems of cooperation and there will be a need to be a great deal more porous and adaptable. No European nation can afford to lose our capacity for compassion, for welcoming the stranger who has suffered, and who has come to us asking for help. To be able to extend that help is the mark of a decent society.”


Dr. Michael Korzinski (HBF), Stephanie Chaplin (HBF) and Mr.Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen (NRM)

Photography: Robyn Patton, Bastiaan Musscher Corina Karstenberg

For more information on HBF and Journey:

For more information on the NRHT:

Altijd wat NCRV Freek van der Linden interview with Emma Thompson October 29, 2010

Coy, M., Horvarth, M., Kelly, L. (2007) It’s just like going to the supermarket’ Men buying sex in East London. London Metropolitan University

In 2002, Corina Karstenberg worked for the municipality of Heerlen in The Netherlands, on the project SecuCities Women: Crossborder cooperation and victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation (2001-2003). Two days after her graduation as a cultural historian she held in Paris for twelve countries a presentation about the new legal prostitution policy in the Netherlands.

Last December, this article is published in the Journal Raffia of the Institute for Gender Studies (IGS) of the Radboud University (RU) Nijmegen:

Special thanks to Helen Hintjens who helped me with the translation of the Dutch article in English.

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