Nikki Denholm is haunted by the universal hollowness in eyes that have seen too much.
The Auckland photographer captures powerful images of young girls sold into sex slavery in countries ranging from Cambodia to Uganda.
“I’m there in what tiny way I can to tell their story, but when I come home the eyes stick,” Denholm said.
“The same sense of desolation and hopelessness you see in a lot of the girls’ eyes, no matter which country they’re from, is something that does stay with me.
“I might cry when they’re telling me their stories, but in terms of me processing the enormity of human trafficking and the injustice of it, that’s something I will pick up when I’m at home.”
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Denholm, 53, has worked in more than 40 countries documenting the stories of people suffering through war, famine, persecution, and crisis.
The mother of three girls was inspired to focus on human sex trafficking six years ago after a symposium in India alerted her to the severity of the problem.
At the time, 16,000 girls each year were trafficked from Nepal across the border to India, she said.
The Mission Bay resident worked in a red-light district in Mumbai where an estimated 42,000 young girls were held captive in high-rise brothels across seven streets.
“I was quite shocked at how many young girls and women are sold into human sex trafficking and how poor the outcomes are for them in terms of ever being rescued,” Denholm said.
Today, it is estimated that between 28-30 million people across the world have been trafficked into some form of human slavery, with between four and a half million and five million sold into sex slavery, she said.
“Something happens at a different level when you see a photograph than when you just read four and a half million girls have been sex-trafficked. I think what a photograph does is it brings the issues into people’s hearts really.”
Human trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing criminal area, reaping an estimated NZ$230 billion profit a year, according to Tearfund.
The photographer of 15 years was driven to portray the women she met in a different light from historically sexualised images of girls donning bikinis and stilettos.
“I was keen to take some images that spoke more to the heart and dignity of the young survivors that had been trafficked that portrayed them in a very human way as opposed to as a sexualised victim.”
Denholm puts the girls at ease by spending time with them, sometimes accompanied by her daughters, 13, 18 and 21.
She will spend the whole week at a safe house getting to know the women and could spend a whole day with them before picking up her camera.
“Maybe one of the reasons why I’ve been able to get very intimate and moving images is because the girls I work with see me as a fellow human that does sit with them, listen to music and laugh together.”
The photographer portrayed the “profoundly sad” life of Sunitha, an orphan sold to an Indian brothel at the age of 9.
Sunitha was given hormones to bring on puberty early and began work as a sex slave at the age of 11, Denholm said.
“When we met her, she was about 18, she said she never went outside, and she serviced up to 30 clients a day.”
Her arms bore multiple scars from self-harming.
“She talked about how they took the sheets out of the brothels so no-one could harm themselves or jump out of the windows.
“When we met her, I gave her a hug and noticed that she was very, very hot.”
Denholm and a social worker paid for her to be assessed at hospital where she was diagnosed with Aids. Sunitha later died in respite care.
“You think of New Zealand kids at 18, what the worries are, ‘can I have OnlyFans? ’” Denholm said.
“So for her, by 18, she was dead and had spent years of her life as a human sex slave.”
Meanwhile, online sexual abuse of children has risen by a third during the past year, according to non-profit organisation Tearfund.
Denholm said digital technology made it easy for perpetrators to upload and access online sexual abuse material.
Secondly, the financial fallout on global tourism due to Covid-19 has prompted pimps to move sexual experiences with minors online after the pandemic ended sex trips to countries like the Philippines and Thailand, she said.
The economic impact of Covid meant families facing “a life or death predicament” were more vulnerable to letting their daughter be filmed for sexual abuse material online, she said.
“Their choice might be, ‘should I put my seventh of eight children out on the street so we’ve got enough food to eat, or should I allow her to be filmed?’, and being filmed seems like a less dangerous option.”
Back home, Denholm runs the Light Project, a national training project equipping young people to navigate pornography positively.
“Adults are very awkward talking about porn and yet there’s data now that shows it’s a massive issue for young people, that they are already engaged with it, and so it’s just about helping equip them.”
She directs the New Zealand Female Genital Mutilation Education Programme, working with health professionals to provide better outcomes for women with female genital mutilation in New Zealand and to help prevent the barbaric practice happening here.