SOLD is a series of 27 anonymous portraits of victims of human trafficking in the Netherlands.

The portraits were shot in their rooms in shelters where these women and men temporarily found safety, and a home, and maybe the start of a better life. The clothes they wore were often their only possessions.

The portraits were collaborative efforts between me and the portrayed. We shared ideas and worked together to create portraits that show their strength and beauty, not portraying them as victims.

Being a victim does not define them. These are people, just like us. People who had something terrible happen to them. People who are very strong. To have lived through what happened to them takes a lot of determination and character. They are people with hopes and dreams, and hopefully a better future ahead.

“They where waiting for me at the beach. There were 90 of us in that boat, some drowned. When we finally arrived in Italy there were guys helping us, we were all tired but relieved we made it. One of the guys promised me work in a restaurant and a room. I did not have anywhere to go so I was happy. Within days he made me sleep with men. He had all the power. First in Italy, then Germany, and then the Netherlands. It has been three years now. I’m safe now but I don’t know what the future holds.” © Ernst Coppejans
The only requirement for the portraits was they had to be anonymous to protect their identities. This is because they are still in danger. Police and the justice department are still investigating these cases. 90% of the perpetrators are never caught.

I worked on this project for two-and-a-half years. It began a few years ago when I was quite surprised to learn there was a shelter for victims of human trafficking in Amsterdam. I never thought this was a problem that occurred in the Netherlands. This information stuck in my head. I wanted to know more and started researching. It took a long while to be able to meet with these brave people, and even longer to earn their trust to make their portraits. I heard many horrifying personal stories, and discovered facts and statistics about human trafficking (locally and worldwide) that are devastating and unfathomable.

“My mother-in-law sold me. I met my fiancee in Italy, there is no work in Romania. When I became pregnant he took me to the Netherlands to live with his mother. A few weeks after the baby was born, my fiancee had gone back to Italy, my mother-in-law invited this guy that I did not know. She told me I had to go with him. He locked me in a hotel room in the center, chained me to the bed and drugged me. I was there for two years. 10 guys a day. I never got any money.” © Ernst Coppejans
I learned that trafficking and slavery is not something that only happens in countries that are “far away.” In fact it is a worldwide problem, and it is close to all of us, no matter where you live.

The people I portrayed have been able to leave the shelters and try to return to normal lives. Others fill the rooms at the shelters today. It is an endless stream of victims.

—Ernst Coppejans

“I was very young when my father sold me to a stranger. I ended up in eastern Europe, where for many years I was sexually assaulted and exploited. One day I seized the opportunity to flee to another country. Someone I met on the journey ended up taking me to the Netherlands, where I was questioned and then taken to a shelter. During the first counseling session, it became clear that I had been a victim of human trafficking. I had no idea. By now, I am a mother to three sons… I am utterly rootless, I have so far lived in this center for 18 months. Safe, but with no prospect of being allowed to stay.” © Ernst Coppejans
The numbers:

people are, at any given time, victims of modern slavery

of the 40,300,000 are forced to marry someone

of the 40,300,000 are forced to perform work

of the 24,900,000 (19%) are victims of sexual exploitation

forced labor victims (47%) work in construction, manufacturing, mining or hospitality

forced labor victims (24%) are domestic workers

forced labor victims (11%) work in agriculture

are children under the age of 18

(62%) forced laborers are in the Asia-Pacific region

(23%) are in Africa

(9%) are in Europe and Central Asia

(5%) are in the Americas

(1%) are in the Arab States

is the estimated number of victims per year in the Netherlands

(21%) of these people are forced labor victims (outside of the sex industry)

(79%) are forced to work in the sex industry in the Netherlands

This story was awarded 1st Place, Series, in the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2020. Discover the wide range of remarkable portraits created by all 39 winners and finalists.