When 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture, director Steve McQueen dedicated the win to “the 21 million people who still endure slavery today.” Even that staggering number pales in comparison to the estimated 27 million people who are subject to human trafficking — whether for labor or for sex — in the world, including 9,000 victims documented in the United States between 2007 and 2012 by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Birmingham native Rachel Callahan, proprietor of the blog Grasping for Objectivity, struggled to understand the scope of the problem until last year. “I was familiar with it, but I avoided it,” Callahan said. “I couldn’t really process that. I had read some other articles about children in Asia or Europe — it was just too much to handle. Until I read [a Weld article on human trafficking from early last year], I didn’t realize the prevalence of it in America, that it was just as big of a problem here.”
It was a problem that hit especially close to home for Callahan as a mother. “I have a 7-year-old daughter, and some of the stories I read were of children kidnapped at that age, and it was horrible to process and think about how dramatic that whole event would be for the child, for the parents, for everybody involved.”
After blogging for six years on everything from blue jeans to local graffiti artist Moist, Callahan has accrued an audience that she feels could help raise awareness of serious issues affecting the community. In the case of human trafficking, it led her to a partnership with the WellHouse, a local nonprofit founded by a survivor of human trafficking and dedicated to rescuing victims near Interstate 20, an infamous artery and staging ground for sex trafficking.
After being laid out with a sickness for a few months, Callahan began taking photos of sunsets around town as a means of recuperating, a project which emerged into a separate blog called Picture Birmingham.
“It gave me something to focus on that wasn’t about me, that wasn’t about figuring out whatever in the world was wrong with me,” Callahan said. “I started amassing this giant collection of sunset photos, and they seemed to be popular, and people started asking if they could buy them. And that’s when it all came together — about November of last year — when I realized that I could sell these; I could give the money to the WellHouse, and it was really cool…to get that piece of the puzzle after I started working with them. It was a moment of realization.”
Printed by Alabama Graphics in Southside, Callahan’s photos feature gorgeous shots of Birmingham’s landmarks, capturing lovely moments and the city’s unique character all at once. There are photos prominently featuring Railroad Park, Ruffner Mountain, Quinlan Castle and other distinctly Birmingham sites, all bathed in the soothing, vivid colors of the setting sun. All sales from Picture Birmingham go to benefit the WellHouse.
It’s appropriate that Callahan’s photos feature Birmingham so recognizably, since they aim at raising awareness of a cause that’s shockingly immediate to the Magic City. “You relate to people like you,” Callahan explained. “If you put [human trafficking] in terms of: ‘This is happening next door to you,’ or: ‘This is happening 10 minutes away from you,’ or if people see it happening in the best neighborhoods in Birmingham, it just shocks them into realizing that ‘Oh, this is different than I thought it was.’”
It was important to Callahan to try to find a way to raise awareness and to serve an important cause in a way that people wouldn’t just filter out amid the many other issues vying for their attention. “I only promote things that I personally am passionate about so that when I do promote something, people might actually listen,” Callahan said, referring to her years of experience in social media. “You’ve got to save that influence, not just cry wolf when you have an opportunity to promote something.”
Sex trafficking is a thorny and dangerous cause to try and get involved in stopping, for reasons both obvious (the immediate threat of violence, the proper role of the authorities) and nuanced (the years of psychological trauma that have to heal in their own time). Outside of simply donating money, it can be difficult to come up with ways to support organizations like the WellHouse.
Picture Birmingham has provided an opportunity for Callahan to re-contextualize an apparently foreign issue like human trafficking into the realm of her own experience and creative outlets. The result is not merely a source of excellent pictures for people who love Birmingham to hang on their wall, but also, critically, it may serve as a potential catalyst for encouraging people to find out how to bring their own talents to bear on a problem that’s been hidden for far too long.