“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

This week, World Press Photo awarded The Long Night a First Prize for Long Feature. Last month, it was named Documentary Project of the Year by Pictures of the Year International.

The Long Night is a feature length documentary film about sex trafficking and underage prostitution in America. It is also one component of a much larger, ongoing project called Leaving The Life.

I’ve worked on Leaving The Life for six years. It is a grassroots movement using documentary storytelling to engage communities and to shift attitudes around domestic minor sex trafficking.

I am deeply honored for the recognition by the photojournalism community, but the awards are about my work and that work is nothing until it makes a difference for the people whose struggle I’ve witnessed.

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

Recognition from award-granting organizations in photojournalism is hugely gratifying, but it is not, in any way, a culmination of one’s work.

I know, I know, you’ve heard a thousand times before about how photographers and documentarians want to change the world. Am I any different? In my idealism and ambition, perhaps not so much. But, in my strategy and planning for developing and distributing the work, I might be.

I want to explain how Leaving The Life differs from other documentary projects and how I plan to use it to change society. What follows is an engagement roadmap for documentary projects. Not all of my learnings and techniques are widely applicable, but many of them are.

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.”

Last week, I was in two major U.S. cities meeting with cops, senators, social services, and film producers. I want to insert Leaving The Life materials and their victim-centric message into the training programs of county sheriff deputies, vice cops, and law enforcement administrators. So far, the response has been positive.

My photos, film, and audio do something different than the average pack of training materials. It helps that the project features Deputy Conner, a compassionate officer who co-founded The Genesis Project, a center where officers may take sex-workers as an alternative to jail. Women and girls go to the Genesis Project voluntarily and have access to services that can help them leave the sex-industry. It, and a couple other centers, are emerging in the Seattle area.

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.

I always envisioned the audience for Leaving The Life would be those that affect policy and control city and state budgets. That these longer-term and more complex partnerships would be the core of the work. In many ways, the film The Long Night was a happy accident.

The awards are not the grand finale, they will be used to draw more attention to the issue; that is the value I identify in my win. I will work to leverage the increased visibility for maximum effect.

This is about making a movie into a movement.

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?

Human trafficking is a symptom of a failing society. Homelessness, poor education and job opportunities, inadequate healthcare for all, and gender inequality, among other problems, are cause for trafficking. These root causes create vulnerabilities traffickers exploit to meet a societal demand.

Trafficking of all types is appalling, but the control and coercion of American children for sex-work in American cities is particularly abhorrent. When we talk about domestic minor sex trafficking, we are potentially talking about a young girl or boy who lives on your block. And, yes, we are talking about your community creating that demand for exploitation.

“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.

The story arc of the film, The Long Night, rests primarily on two young girls, Lisa and Natalie, who were both turned out by pimps in their teens.

In understanding these girls’ lives, I have met cops, detectives, case workers, judges, and attorneys. I have met sex-buyers. I’ve formed close bonds with the families of both Lisa and Natalie. I have not interviewed any pimps. Yet. More on that later.

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

I have not done this alone. I have drawn on tools, skills, networks, and allies in the photography and documentary communities to produce stills, video, audio and, of course, the movie. Films are about team work.

These are building blocks in the service of a much larger conversation beyond the confines of the photo industry. Lawmakers, budget analysts, cops, social services, and prosecutors are the prime audience for Leaving the Life.

The movie, The Long Night, is an access point. Certainly, I hope as many people see the work, but getting it in front the people allocating public funds and dictating policy is a priority.

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.

I can’t remember how many cops have told me to get my work into the training academy. Or the sergeants who’ve said their chiefs need to see the work. Or the social services people who nod, saying it’s the most real depiction of their work they’ve seen. Or the prosecutor who said, “It’s like a kick in the teeth!”

My favorite comment came from a community doctor friend. He’s a bit of a goofball, but after seeing the film he exclaimed, “It’s like seeing my patients on the big screen!” He later referred one of my subjects to the services she needed to leave the life.

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.

When so many people doing the actual work on America’s city streets call for the stories to see broader release, it tells me that I’ve hit on something. This is more than news, entertainment, or awareness. It’s about getting phone calls from task forces and cities saying, “We’re trying to do something about this issue and we’d like to have you talk and screen your film.”

This is happening now.

Complex Stories, Complex Responses

Consistently, the largest task as a storyteller — and with this project especially — is to convey information that is humanizing while not victimizing; that is empathetic and rigorous.

Whether or not you realize, you play a role in sex trafficking. You may not understand your personal responsibility, but it is there. By default, we are almost all bystanders to the very complex issues shaping domestic minor sex trafficking. But we needn’t be.

Hopefully, people are educated and activated by my work, seeing themselves doing more than clicking “like” or “donate.” I hope some are inspired toward compassion and solution-finding. It will take creativity and enterprise, but we all have the ability to affect positive change.

Why My Interest In This Issue?

I began examining trauma and victimization in Seattle in 2000. Eventually I set up a non-profit, the FEAR Project (Friends Educating Against Rape), which used multimedia to create dialog about the lasting effects of sexual violence on individuals and communities. It taught me a lot about engaging people. Between 2006 and 2009, I reported frequently on human trafficking in Cambodia. It was there I learned about trafficking’s root causes.

I knew trafficking existed in the U.S., but thought it’d be mostly labor and foreign nationals.

Domestic minor sex trafficking was something a City of Seattle report surfaced in 2008. The report titled Who Pays the Price? Assessment of Youth Involvement in Prostitution in Seattle described things that looked really familiar to the stuff I’d seen overseas.

I began researching and writing grants when, in late 2012, I won the inaugural Women’s Initiative Grant from the Alexia Foundation. This was the seed capital I needed to start the reporting.

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

The Process

The twelve months after winning funding from the Alexia Foundation were filled with a lot of anxiety. Was I going to get access? Was I following the right story? As the stories shifted, would their narrative arc still fit? Was I working hard enough? Sometimes self-doubt is the biggest obstacle to overcome.

My hard drive tells me I shot 52 days. I easily put in another 150 of networking, relationship building, research, and simply driving around Seatac and Tukwila, just south of Seattle, hoping to connect with one of my subjects. Sometimes she’d text at 3am, other times it would be days before she responded. For her, time doesn’t seem to exist.

I shot about a terabyte of compressed h264 footage on my 5DMKII — I don’t know how many hours that is — and made 5433 stills throughout the whole project. Which surprises me; it doesn’t seem to me like a lot given the story.

Eighteen of the 5433 of photographs I made over a 52 day period.

Out of those 52 days, I hired a second cinematographer for about six. Carey Wagner was instrumental in getting some of the footage, particularly of Lisa shooting heroin in a women’s restroom at McDonalds. With her newspaper background, Wagner is tenacious. Though I mostly worked alone, her example pushed me to take more risk and try harder.

Concurrently, the Alexia Foundation hired MediaStorm to produce a multimedia short. In the end, as relationships deepened along with access, we put together the feature film.

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.


Being a photojournalist stepping into the doc film world was refreshing, new, and had a steep learning curve. I’m still learning.

I always thought grassroots, independent distribution is where this work belongs. Grassroots distribution puts the work in the hands of communities; they take ownership of the work and the issue, creating a movement on their terms.

This happens by talking about the work, responding to every email, working social media, making up your own press tour, and taking the content to the audience where they live, not by locking it into some traditional publishing model.

I often hear photojournalists talk about making a difference, but once the story is published, they’re paid a paltry editorial fee, maybe win an award, then they move on. While I firmly believe these news gatherers must be eye witnesses for the world, I also think so much more can be done with their work.

Sometimes journalism is not enough. There needs to be follow through, be it through a partner organization or by the journalist him or herself.

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

The general public needs a 101 class and the policy makers need help with their post-docs. Both can benefit from the film, which is meant for broad audience outreach, but the engagement program I’m developing with A Fourth Act, supported in part by the Fledgling Fund, is where the policy change occurs.

Too many cops criminalize sex workers, adult and child both, without asking the question, “Is this person being exploited?” First responders need to understand what victim-centric policing is.

“The engagement project opened dialogue,” said Tina Harris, Domestic Violence Victim Advocate with the Renton Police Department. “It allowed for real time feedback … about attitudes and beliefs … and how community and government may be able to work together…With this interactive approach prevention and education curriculum can be developed.”

The goal is for the audience to develop empathy, to see possible solutions.

“As prosecutors, we read about this aspect of life on the streets all the time in police reports,” said Ann Summers, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County, Seattle. “We hear witnesses testify to it, but to actually see it happening gives us a much deeper understanding.”

As this unfolds, I’ve connected with regional task forces, using the film to start the conversation then having partners piggy-back training or the Leaving the Life engagement program. The King County prosecutor and sheriff are championing the program within county government; we’re currently planning an agency-wide convening.

This is only part of what I have in mind. As the movement grows, I intend to build a platform out of existing components, bringing in more measuring and engagement tools. I want to tell more stories, or hire other journalists to do this. I’m starting with the #leavingthelife on the instagram @leavingthelife. Modeled after @everydayeverywhere, I want to build community by crowdsourcing stories of hope and overcoming.

But from the journalism seat, chiefly what’s missing is a story on demand; who are the buyers and pimps? What is their story? What about the consenting sex workers? I believe all voices need to be heard; that’s the journalist in me.

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

I’m screening the film The Long Night at universities, in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Bellingham, Farmington Hills (outside Detroit) and have a lengthy list of additional venues. Each city has the potential to host the engagement program Leaving the Life offers; in fact, though it’s logistically more complicated, it’s what organizers are most interested in.

I’ve added a second whiteboard to the wall of my one-bed apartment. It’s already covered in plans, lines, names. There are some google docs, dropbox folders with articles and documents. My Pinterest board on sex work and policy articles might look a little creepy. I’m developing work flows with volunteers, handing off as much as I can.

I don’t want this stuck in my head, dependent on me; what gets done needs to be replicable.

The actual measurement part is yet to come. I’m a storyteller, a journalist; that’s my core competency. But so far, I’ve had to become a filmmaker, a public speaker, a program director, fundraiser, even a case manager.

I’m figuring it out as I go, using story to engage audiences, develop partnerships, and change cultural and institutional norms.

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

It’s taken me a good many words here to say just the basics. I hope it makes sense and I hope it is helpful. I’ve lived with this issue for many years and in that time grappled endlessly with the most efficient ways to structure, package, share and talk about the work.

For now, let’s just say, we’re in a new era. If you want to make stories, you have to think about publishing and distribution by yourself. These things requires nimbleness, ingenuity, and willingness to go where the audience is. You can get to those places more easily then an entire publication can!

Photographers looking for validation through awards and publishing limit us to the traditional model. Think bigger. If you say you want to make a difference, then be proactive. Don’t rely on traditional distribution models.

Engagement is not necessarily a photographer’s core competency, but engagement is essential. That’s what partners are for. Find them and build something custom. If it is reflexive and good and novel, the traditional distributors will take notice. Change in the industry can occur.

Finally, we’re not just content providers, we’re journalists turning a critical eye on the world and giving voice to the voiceless.

Always remember that.

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

My name is Tim Matsui. I’m a visual journalist. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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