When Isabella Gomes began photographing her sources—all survivors of sex trafficking—she knew she wanted to display their agency, dignity, and strength.
"When we see photojournalism of human rights issues like sex trafficking, a lot of times it illustrates survivors and victims in this way that sort of focuses on the devastation and the tragedy of the violence they experienced," Gomes said.
As the 2019 reporting fellow from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Gomes spent months reporting on survivors of sex trafficking—and the failure of the U.S. healthcare system to identify them.
Gomes was recently honored as a finalist in the This is Gender photography exhibition. The shortlisted image, which depicts survivor Margeaux Gray and her guide dog, Junebug, will exhibit at University College London. The exact dates are not yet confirmed due to COVID-19 concerns.
While photographing Gray, Gomes knew to recognize Junebug as not only a physical support animal, but also an emotional one. She felt that her image shows the companionship between pet and owner, while also showing Gray as a loving and responsible dog owner.
"What I really appreciated was the recognition that, through my photography, I was able to show survivors with their strength, their resilience, and their healing journey," Gomes said.
Gray, too, was excited to hear that a photograph reflecting her healing process, advocacy work, and strength was chosen and honored by the photography competition. "[The photo] showed her in her element and showed the happiness and healing that she personally worked really hard for," Gomes said.
Prior to the photojournalism published in her Pulitzer Center-supported project, Gomes said her photography began with a weekend bootcamp during her time at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. After that, she volunteered her services for events, including the 2017 Women's March in New York City. "I ended up getting to go behind the lines and take photos of these really empowered female leaders, and it was an amazing experience," Gomes said.
Global Health 50/50 launched the #thisisgender photo competition in November 2019 as a response to "the lack of representational diversity and critically reflective images of gender in global health." The competition drew over 400 submissions from 53 countries. From those entries, Gomes' photograph was chosen as one of 21 shortlisted images.
For Gomes, the biggest takeaway from her project was that survivors are the experts and leaders in any human rights movement. "All of our work should be informed by the lessons [survivors] have to teach us," Gomes said. "They don't owe us their time, and they don't owe us their stories. But if they offer either, listen."
To see the full This is Gender gallery and for more information, please visit the Global Health 50/50 website.
Editor's note on June 26, 2020: Click here to read an interview with Gomes on the Global Health 50/50 website, discussing how sensationalized representations of sex trafficking survivors in the media have led to societal misconceptions of abuse and trafficking.