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not Natasha

February 15 May 12, 2013
Exhibition Opening and Reception: Friday, February 15, 6:00 - 8:00pm

Please note: The Artist's Talk and Book Signing scheduled for March 29th has been cancelled.
We regret that Dana Popa is unable to travel from London for this previously scheduled

Valeria insists on trying on her mum's favourite dress. No one knows anything of her mother. She left for Moscow more than two years ago.
"...for me it is essential that the audience can see the women who went through this ordeal that I am photographing. They exist."
—Dana Popa

"Natasha is a nickname given to prostitutes with Eastern European looks. Sex-trafficked girls hate it." —Dana Popa


Traveling from London to her birthplace in Eastern Europe Dana Popa recorded the plight of sex-trafficked women from Eastern Europe. Sold by friends, family or even their husbands for sometimes just a few hundred dollars, these women and girls live a tawdry and dangerous life on the fringes and in the shadows of our culture.

Sex trafficking is the most profitable illegal business. It often begins with the offer of a well-paid job in a world of dreams. The moment the woman agrees to take the job of a retailer, nanny, bartender or something innocuous like this, the business starts running. She will have all the documents and travelling expenses paid by the traffickers, with the obligation of returning the debt out of her first month’s income.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova is one of the main trafficking source countries for women and children. In Moldova a third of the workforce lives and works abroad, and, in 2006, 80% of households remained unable to generate a subsistence income. Female unemployment, as Popa tells us, may well be as high as 68%. The consequence is that those who are most vulnerable, young women, often no more than children, are most at risk.

It is estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 women have been sold into prostitution abroad - up to 10% of the female population. These staggering numbers make Moldova the main exporter of ‘sex slaves’ for the European continent. Increasingly, Moldova has also become a major destination for sex tourism. This exacerbates the problem by creating internal sex trafficking.

In Moldova, Popa worked with the International Organisation for Migration Shelters and Winlock International where she was given access to photograph and document the experiences of 17 women who had been trafficked. In 2008 Autograph ABP commissioned Popa to return to Moldova where she began to collect the stories of the disappeared and photograph the families, the homes and in some cases the children who have been left behind. Finally, Popa returned to the UK where she documented the spaces where the trafficked women work as prostitutes in the brothels of Soho, London.


"In the summer of 2006, I went to the Republic of Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, and the main exporter of sex slaves for the whole continent. I went to see how they managed to live with the traumas they had experienced in a world that knows nothing about their suffering; how they lived under a huge shadow of fear that a mother or husband might find out and throw them out in the street. I stepped into a shelter for survivors of sex trafficking.
"Acquaintances, close friends, relatives or boyfriends sell a girl for $200, $500, even $2,000, depending on how attractive or financially appealing the girl is. Once arrived in the country of destination, the girls are taken into brothels, their passports confiscated, and immediately put to work as prostitutes." --Dana Popa
"For one year and four months, from four o'clock in the morning till late in the afternoon, we worked like slaves. And never got paid a penny. Terrible things, that I cannot talk of happened to my sister."
Cristina, 16 years old.

They are supposed to be free after they pay back this debt, but they invariably get sold to another pimp. It’s a vicious circle that generates a lot of money. It keeps the business running and the girls in captivity. Every day they are raped, fisted, bent backwards, pissed on, badly beaten up. They never receive money from the client or the pimp. They are not allowed to contact anybody. Escaping traffickers is not easy. It’s not a simple case that one can just jump out of a window and she is free, especially when some of the regular clients are police officers. Being illegal out there can be more dangerous than living in a brothel.

The red haired girl. Always dragging along a two-year old daughter. She just escaped sexual slavery in Turkey.
"I met seventeen women who had been sex trafficked. Some of them too fragile; some very strong, trying to leave behind an unwanted past. I explained the reasons for my work in detail to every woman I photographed. I had to be both discreet and protective. These women were still dealing with strong emotional issues. In respect to their identity, all the names have been changed." --Dana Popa
There are uncountable reported and unreported cases of missing women. I went through the Moldovan villages, to look at the ghostly emptiness of the places where a while ago the missing women used to be a natural presence; the family left behind living in hope that one day they will see their mother, daughter, wife, sister again; kids that cannot even miss their mother as they don’t remember how she looks; the woman who buried her daughter after eight years of disappearance; the little altar built around one old picture; the half-empty cup in the deserted house; the bed of a fifteen-year old, gone.

I guess being a woman makes it easier to understand and to empathize with the women who escaped sexual slavery. Both men and women photographers can gain the same access to the issue, the difference is the level of intimacy one can and wants to gain with the subject of her/his photography. The more intimate I was, the more details of their journeys and of their trauma I received, and the better I could shape the story.

"I wanted to look at the deep marks that sexual slavery leaves on a human being. I wanted to show what one couldn’t see: the interior hidden trauma; that was the challenge for me. I also wanted to look at the reason why women would take the chance, leave their children, families behind and flee their country; also if they integrate back, if the society puts a stigma on them. I was also aware that this angle would give me time to meet more women and to dig deep into this subject and to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Colleagues and people from the industry tell me that the pictures which do not show people are stronger, but for me it is essential that the audience can see the women who went through this ordeal that I am photographing. They exist." --Dana Popa
"I thought I would work purely as a vendor at the market in Moscow for $200 a month... Instead, I got sold and resold to pimps until a client set me free..." Elena, 23 years old.

I had the opportunity to continue the work through a commission from Autograph ABP that later published the book. I followed my story line looking at the spaces where the women who are sex slaves once belonged. Their presence was strong there, and one could still feel it through the families who were longing for them, through objects left behind, through their rooms kept intact, exactly as they were when they went missing or little pictures transformed into little altars. Later on, I looked at the places where such women are held captive and forced into prostitution. This was my way of representing missing women: through empty spaces that once were filled with their natural presence and empty spaces where they are forced to exist."
--Dana Popa


Dana Popa is a documentary photographer working mostly in Eastern Europe and the United Kingdom who specializes in contemporary social issues, with a particular emphasis on human rights. Popa was born and raised in Romania before moving to the UK. She holds a master’s degree in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism from the London College of Communication.

Popa's series on sex trafficking received the Jury Prize in the Days Japan International Photojournalism Awards 2007 and the Jerwood Photography Award 2007. Her photographs have been exhibited in solo shows in the UK at the Impressions Gallery and Photofusion, as well as in multiple international shows including at the Helsinki Biennial; Foto8 Gallery; Blue Sky Gallery; ICI Dublin, Ireland; Amnesty International, London; Noorderlicht International Photofestival; Houston Fotofest; the Open Society Institute and at the British Council, Belfast. Her images have been featured in Afterwards by Nathalie Herschfreoder; East Book by Regina Maria Anzenberger and in Home, Elephant and Castle.

Popa’s photographs are in the collections of Musee de l'Elysee, Portland Art Museum, Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts and she has been published by numerous international art journals including Foam International Photography Magazine, Foto8, Next Level, Portfolio Magazine, British Journal of Photography, Vrij Nederland. Her series not Natasha received the First Prize Project Competition at Center Santa Fe, NM, the Jerwood Photography Award, as well as the Jury Prize in the Days Japan International Photojournalism Awards.

This project was commissioned by Autograph ABP, London; which is a charity that works internationally to educate the public in photography with a particular emphasis on cultural identity and human rights.

Click HERE for information about Dana Popa.

All images are Archival Pigment Prints.

Popa Popa
Maria was abandoned by her husband on the grounds that the baby she gave birth to after she escaped sexual slavery was not his.
Ana’s new born baby.
Nadia is turning 18. Very fragile. Now she is laughing her head off, next minute she is crying. The psychologist confirms she was sold by her mother in Turkey.

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