“Natalie” at home.

I Just Won a World Press Photo Award and a POYi, But I’m Not Celebrating

A documentary project about social issues is worth nothing if it doesn’t improve the lives of its subjects

Tim Matsui
Mar 11, 2015 · 13 min read

Lisa, the night I met her through law enforcement. I followed up with her about a month later, beginning a journalistic relationship that continues today.

Awards Are Good, Measurable Change Is Better

Lisa is one of two subjects in The Long Night. She was turned out by a pimp at age 13 and now struggles with heroin addiction. Here, she relaxes in a blanket at the Genesis Project, a drop-in center designed to give street sex-workers some place to go that isn’t jail where they can rest and they have access to services to help them leave the “Life.”
Left: Deputy Conner (left) talks with Lisa and Denise Sams(staff) and Ladedria Stallworth Griffith (staff), at the Genesis Project in Seatac, just south of Seattle, WA. Deputy Conner established Genesis Project with two fellow deputies, Brian Taylor and Joel Banks, when he realized he was not meeting the needs of street sex-workers by repeatedly arresting them. Right: Lisa relaxes in a robe with some food shortly after arriving at the Genesis Project.
Left: Ladedria (staff, at left) talks with a sex worker, center, and an unknown volunteer at right. Right: Deputy Conner, in civilian clothes, works closely with Genesis Project staff to give sex street workers feasible alternatives to prostitution. The pilot project, along with a couple other drop-in and long-term facilities in the Seattle area, have seen success. The film and the engagement program associated with Leaving The Life endorses establishment of similar centers in other American cities.
Detective Taylor, left, and Detective Frazier, right, interview a sex worker to determine her situation and if she’d be a good candidate for the drop in center.

What Is Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking?

“Natalie” is one of two girls whose story is told in Leaving The Life. Natalie ran away from her home in a suburb of Seattle aged 15. Within 48-hours she’d been turned out on to the street by a pimp. Her services were advertised on internet sites and her pimp — who is now in prison — would drive her to meet clients. Some of the clients her pimp took her to were in the greek system at the University of Washington, young men barely older than herself.
Childhood photographs of Natalie in the family home make it clear that she was just an ordinary kid. Natalie had a settled upbringing. When she ran away from home, “recruiters” and pimps exploited her relative naiveté. Natalie says it wasn’t long before the sexual abuse from clients and physical and psychological abuse from her pimp “broke her.”
After over three months of being pimped out, “Natalie” was arrested with her pimp during a hotel sting operation. Her father’s dogged search and the persistence of a vice detective led to the operation. After her arrest, so successful was her pimp’s manipulation that Natalie insisted he was a good man, that she loved him, and her parents would like him. It was months before she started to see how he’d used her.
Released from jail, Lisa has detoxed and is sober. She is taken to a long-term residential facility where she’s given the option to continue her rehabilitation. But the pull of the Life is strong.

From the Photojournalism Community, But Not For It

Seattle police make an arrest of a man caught soliciting a known sex worker. Unfortunately for him, the convicted felon had returned to selling drugs and was carrying a small firearm. The sex buyers I saw soliciting street-based sex work stretched the gamut of society.
Left: Officers monitor websites such as backpage.com that pimps use to advertise sex-workers. If they suspect a young girl is underage, they can arrange a sting operation. Right: As part of a sting operation, deputies arrest a sex-worker in a Seattle area motel. She was not under the age of 18.
Deputy Conner and colleagues, if given reasonable cause, may search a vehicle when detaining a suspect for soliciting the services of sex-workers. At left, Deputy Conner peers at legal pornography in the back seat of a sex-buyer’s car. At right, as a sex-buyer stepped out of the car a 41 gram bag of crack cocaine fell out of his lap. The deputies then had to search his car, finding hundreds of dollars and a small gun.

Complex Stories, Complex Responses

Why My Interest In This Issue?

Lisa, outside her mother’s home, one of the only places she maintains brief sobriety.

The Process

Eighteen of the 5433 of photographs I made over a 52 day period.
Detective Taylor talks to a man arrested, cited, then released for solicitation. He was negotiating price with a sex worker when the police pulled up. He was on his way home from work.

Distribution

Detective Joel Banks with the Seatac Police Department recalls one of the many stories from his training days. The ghosts stay with him. “It’s a lot to deal with mentally,” Banks said. “You can’t bring it home.”

Fermenting Change

Deputy Conner taking a young woman to the local jail. She was uncooperative and not an ideal candidate for diversion to the drop in center. Sex work is still illegal in Washington state.

Measuring Results

After the trauma of losing a child to uncertainty and brutality on Seattle’s streets, Natalie’s parents Nicole and Tom decided for a fresh start and relocated to a small rural town.

Closing Thoughts

Natalie, now reunited with her family, sits on the porch of the family home with her father Tom.


Vantage

Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

Thanks to Pete Brook.

Tim Matsui

Written by

Visual journalist and filmmaker specializing in human trafficking, supply chain, food systems, nutrition, and healthcare.

Vantage

Vantage

Perspectives on Visual Storytelling