ArtWorks for Freedom Artists Alliance — Matilde Simas

Matilde Simas’ work as a photographer and visual storyteller, guided by her primary role of humanitarian, has taken her around the globe. Her work’s primary focus is human rights, with the goal being to leverage storytelling to inform, provoke discussion, and ultimately inspire action. As Simas explains,

“I achieve this by public speaking and exhibiting my work in galleries and public spaces.  In 2017, I founded Capture Humanity, an organization whose mission is to increase awareness of human rights issues through visual arts andcomprises of photographers, filmmakers, and writers from multiple countries. Together we work to change attitudes and behaviors toward human trafficking while seeking to engage the public through film, video, and photography, with a special focus on social documentary work.”

“We’re incredibly fortunate to be able to connect with organizations around the world to facilitate our work. We begin by discussing our mutual expectations, and then travel to their location to capture the stories in need of attention. Once we return home, we connect with the media, magazines, and gallery spaces to showcase our work and educate the public.”

Simas’ journey as a humanitarian photographer began following a trip to Namibia as a volunteer. She was tasked with taking pictures of Home of Good Hope, a children’s soup kitchen. The surrounding community consisted of hundreds of children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This project was an epiphany for Simas – the moment she realized the power of photography to be an instrument of social change.  

It was her journey to Myanmar in 2014 however, which was her introduction to the terrors of human trafficking. During the four-week trip, Simas met 196 children living in a nunnery. They had been left there by their parents who entrusted the caretakers to shelter their children from on-going war, and prevent them from falling victim to slavery and forced marriage. 

Upon her return home to Boston, Simas scoured the internet, intent on wrapping her mind around the dark reality of human trafficking – something that could have easily ensnared these children. The U.S. State Department proved to be a vital resource on this search for information.

It was this very research led Simas to Kay Chernush, Founder and Director of ArtWorks for Freedom, who had photographed human trafficking for the US State Department.  

“Her advice to me,” says Simas, “was not to wait for an assignment. ‘If you really want to make a difference just go out, shoot it and share it,’ Advice I still carry with me.  Her words led me to work with HAART, a Nairobi-based nonprofit that works to eradicate human trafficking in East Africa.”  

The dual realizations of the potential power of visual storytelling and the need for greater public awareness of the global horror of human trafficking, encouraged Simas’ recent ground-breaking work. She has focused on people bravely rebuilding their lives after being victimized by the harsh reality of human trafficking. The goal being to show the public what befalls the victim, but more importantly the strength these survivors contain within themselves as they reclaim their lives. Simas expands upon this experience below:

“As a photographer, I’ve born witness to countless heartbreaking stories of human trafficking. I’ve spent the last three years working with more than sixty trafficking survivors in Uganda, Kenya, the Philippines, Tanzania and the US. These people are all finding ways to rebuild and adjust to their new lives. Many of them have never had an opportunity to talk about their experiences, which is a vital and therapeutic outlet my partnership with them provides.” 

“These heroic human beings are the driving force behind my desire to share the inconvenient truth of human trafficking and inspire social change. It’s important that people understand the impact of their decisions on human lives—whether it’s buying goods with harmful supply chains or engaging in the sex trade. Awareness, education, and proposing solutions all contribute to helping eradicate the demand for human trafficking.”

It was this deeply burning need to spread awareness and inspire change that catalyzed Simas’ collaboration with ArtWorks for Freedom as a Contributing Artist with Faces Behind Atrocity currently featured on their website as an online exhibit.

The story behind the creation of Faces Behind Atrocity began in 2017 when Simas traveled to Kenya, Africa to document the recovery and reintegration of survivors of human trafficking. The project was a collaborative effort with HAART.

Though planning the trip took about a year, it was this excess of time that allowed her to build a strong relationship with the team at HAARTrelationship building being an integral part of her process. The bond between her and the people she is working with permits special access to sensitive places and the lives of the people she documents.  HAART introduced her to the survivors she photographed and provided guidance to further her understanding of human trafficking in Kenya.

Simas describes the series by saying:

“Faces Behind Atrocity involves portraits and collected testimonies from seven girls of four different nationalities, ranging in age from 13 to 16. They were rescued from the horrors of the trafficking world and are in various stages of the healing process.  In the portraits each girl wears a colorful mask to hide her identity. As you look closer, however, each portrait reveals deep sorrow and trauma.

“The girls were victims of forced labor, forced marriage, and sex trafficking. They were lured by promises of education, sold outright by family members and forced into domestic servitude or prostitution, or sent away by family as child brides to marry a stranger. Many of the girls were exploited by someone they already knew, such as a relative, neighbor, or friend.

“With the use of masks and the powerful testimonials of the survivors, I hope to raise awareness and encourage people to join the movement in supporting organizations that work to fight human trafficking. In the real world, ‘wearing a mask’ is often a way to hide from one’s true self, however, in this series, the mask represents a place for survivors to heal and reveal their authentic selves.”  

Simas’ process of working with her subjects transcends the need to take their picture to spread awareness of what they have endured. It is a form of healing all its own, one she hopes will help the subject on their way to recovering from their experience. In collaboration with the survivors, it was important to her to provide a forum for healing through art.  

“I want to encourage the survivors to tap into the therapeutic power of photography for their personal benefit, and to aid in their recovery.  Early on in my work it became evident that for some of my subjects, photographing them nurtures their confidence, and for others it gives them a feeling of being worthy and valued. My objective is to move viewers away from seeing these people as something to pity and help them see their courage, honesty, beauty and strength.”

The beauty and poignancy of Faces Behind Atrocity is evident in the recognition it has received. The series won the International Photography Award from the Lucie Foundation, Bronze award at the Tokyo International Award and the PX3 honorable mention. 

It has been showcased internationally and widely exhibited by various UN agencies, and is currently on display at the New Bedford Art Museum in Massachusetts. Click here to view the online exhibit.  

Regarding her collaboration with ArtWorks for Freedom, Simas says, “I am honored to be part of ArtWorks.  The nonprofit is working to raise awareness about human trafficking through the arts, and to be part of a community of artists with the same collective goal is really amazing.”

Simas’ work is tremendous and the best part is, she’s just getting started. Her latest venture is a soon-to-be-released short documentary film, Women Rising.  The film will take a broad look at human trafficking in Maine, through the lens of survivors Selina Deveau and Cary Stuart, and answer questions surrounding how the internet provides traffickers with enormous scope to seek out and groom marginalized individuals.  

Photo of Cary Stuart / Image credit: Matilde Simas

It is ArtWorks’ honor to partner with Simas in our shared goal of raising awareness of human trafficking with the end goal of its elimination.

To quote the incomparable Toni Morrison, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” 

And if not us – then who?

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