Starting when she was just fourteen years old, Nathalie* was lured into the sex trade in Canada. She was eventually trafficked to Calgary where policemen stopped her with her pimp. They asked if she needed help. She was too scared to run. She would spend nearly ten years of her life caught up in a cycle of abuse, sex trafficking and addiction.

East Metro Youth Services runs a weekly group for survivors of human trafficking, and as a form of therapy teaches them photography skills so they can document their own experiences. On June 2, Nathalie’s photographs will be on display as part of Hold Still: The Stories of Youth Human Trafficking Survivors, featuring photographs taken by youth (aged 13-28) who have survived domestic human-trafficking.

We asked Nathalie about what she learned.

SDTC: Was this your first experience with photography?

N: I used to model. But the only other experience I had with photography was when I was posting ads on Backpage, taking pictures and having to put them up. For this project, I just used my phone.

To be honest, it was hard at first. I probably didn’t get any pictures for the first few weeks. I struggled. When I think of something, I get stuck. My trauma, my depression and my anxiety have really held me back. So when I’m asked to do something, it’s difficult. I walked around, I meditated, I prayed. I tried to ask my Higher Power to guide me on what would be the best thing to do. A lot of the pictures were moreso feelings; what I was feeling, or how I used to feel. I tried to capture that moment. I hope that’s what comes across in my pictures.

Can you describe your favourite photo?

I have two favourites. One of them I took from a condo – it’s kind of overlooking the DVP & the Gardiner at nighttime. The lights are super bright. I used to work a lot out of condos and hotels. I could never appreciate the beauty of where I come from. I always felt stuck, I was always in a bad situation. It was always negative.

Up until recently, when I would walk by condos or hotels, I would get this feeling in my stomach where I’d want to be sick. Now when I go to those places, I can see the beauty. When I go downtown Toronto, I can see how beautiful the city and the lights are. I see it in a different way than I used to.

In the other one, my fiancé and I are completely naked. It’s a black and white picture. To me, finding love was having sex with people. I thought sex was love. And if someone slept with me, it meant they loved me. I always had to sell myself, or whore myself in some way, until I found someone that – you know, we’re naked in the picture; I can be vulnerable with him. He doesn’t judge me. He knows about my past. And he loves me for every single part of my life. Not for how I look. He loves my heart and my soul. I’m able to let it all out with him. And he’s still by my side. We’re standing side-by-side. There are two words: LOVE and HOPE, to represent all I need. I have a person in my life who loves me, and I have hope, and I have strength.

What have you learned?

I’ve learned to dig deeper. I’ve already had to do that in the recovery process. But during this project I’ve really had to dig deeper and try to connect what I have to do with a feeling, or think about something to put into a picture. It’s expanded my brain to another area. Before it was like, selfies, or take a picture of this. Now I try to capture a moment, a true moment. So I can look back and say, “This is how I felt,” and not to put on makeup and take a picture of something that I’m not. It’s caused me to grow up a little and become more secure in myself.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about human trafficking?

People think it’s not happening here. They think it’s foreign. But in the building I live in, there’s a girl who is selling herself, and I’m pretty sure that someone is helping her do that. You’re blind to it. I was blind to it too. I didn’t even know I was being trafficked. I thought this person was my boyfriend and that he truly loved me. That wasn’t the situation. It isn’t until the very end, when they start treating you like such shit, that you realize, oh my god. This whole time it’s been happening and I had no idea.

What would you say to your younger self?

If I could say anything to my fellow sisters, or my younger self, it would be to really, really trust your gut. I didn’t understand what that meant. I’d go to outcalls and I’d get this feeling in my stomach that I was going to be sick. I now understand that was my Higher Power and intuition saying, “Do not do this, it’s not good, you’re going into a bad situation.” I know that my gut was always right. Sometimes we get a little lost, but our gut always tells us the truth.

What do you look forward to now?

I just celebrated two years [of being] sober. I do a lot of service work. I’m in an anonymous program to get sober. I sponsor girls and try to help them the way my sponsor helped me. I do as much volunteer work as I can in this program. I speak at meetings, detox centres, trauma centres, high schools, human trafficking conferences.

I’m really trying to expand being of service. Because my whole life, I’ve been very selfish. just doing what Nathalie wants to do. There are so many people struggling, and I know my purpose today is to make a difference. No matter what I’m doing, if I see someone struggling, I will go out of my way to try and help them. Everybody needs a little bit of help. If you can make one person smile, that will make a difference in our world.