Seeking Stories, Seeking Hope

Annie Ling’s work carries weight, of both a search and an attempt to relate. Her intimate photos of people from different communities (who are often struggling with displacement) are tied together by a longing for connection and the need to share an untold story.

Abigail Smithson: Are you looking for a home?

Annie Ling: Home is a loaded word if we understand home to mean shelter and community, particularly if you’ve moved countless times growing up without a family as I have. However, I’m really fortunate now to have a physical base in the city and a supportive network. Since I’ve been displaced more than once (including a narrow escape from a devastating building fire in Chinatown), I find myself often confronting questions about how denial, acceptance, and the search for home shapes us. So I suppose I’m on a more visceral search for home and what that means through my work with immigrants, the displaced, and our social-environmental constructs.

81 Bowery

 © Annie Ling, 2014

AS: I ask this because your subjects are from all over the world and you seem to be able to identify successfully with many different groups, and make intimate images of them. I just wonder how you immerse yourself in such a variety of places and situations. 

AL: I look for a connection. This gives me a window into a world beyond what I can see. Our lives are flooded with imagery, but for the sake of brevity, let me ask why have we produced and reproduced so many sensational images, especially of traumatic events? It is critical to probe and process the horrors in history and to highlight suffering and resilience in humanity. However, if we are overwhelmed with sensational approaches to such an extent that they limit our ability to connect to these events, as witnesses we are left with a partial experience and a limited understanding of what is happening.

For instance, I had been aware of human trafficking for many years but eventually it dawned on me that despite all the research and reports available on the subject, there was a troubling disconnect with survivors and a general lack of consciousness or attention to where and why trafficking happens. What images are conjured in our minds when we are confronted with the problem of sex trafficking are a reflection of what we have seen and heard. Part of the reason for that disconnect I believe is because the media tends to sensationalize the story and characters are often reduced to villains and victims, or worse, the subject is obscured thus the issue becomes invisible. As I suspected, the pressing problem of human trafficking is more mundane and pervasive than we’re led to believe. This challenged me to think of a different way to visualize the story, which resulted in collaboration and more contemplative frames coupled with context in Awhereness, focusing on places that enable trafficking. Trafficking takes shape in ordinary places—at home, at common workplaces, transportation hubs, public parks and arenas; it happens to ordinary people, many with certain disadvantages resulting from systems of oppression that are universal and touch every one of us.

ALING_HTweb_08​“You went, but you had to be careful. You were going into risk. So either you would come back well with money in your pocket, or you would come back beaten without anything. So very many things ​happened.”

Tunde, about the street corner where girls worked. Her boyfriend forced her into sex work.

© Annie Ling, 2014


​”Here I came to earn money… It’s a place that people believe you stay at for a special occasion, but [is 
​commonly used for sexual services]. And here you never know who you’ll get, or who you’ll come 
​across, because you don’t know him, you go only for the money… it was a horror. So, I would get 
​horrified as soon as I saw the car pull up. Or they would come take you by force. It was really bad.”

Tunde was trafficked by her boyfriend with whom she lived on the streets.

© Annie Ling, 2014


Tunde’s trafficker, the father of her children, is currently in jail for unrelated crimes. Today, she is 
​happily married to a different man, but two of her children were taken from her by social services. 
​Tunde, her husband and a third child live in poverty, and they are struggling to make ends meet each
​month. Her biggest wish is a little house with a garden for her family.

© Annie Ling, 2014

In retrospect, many of the projects I’ve worked on—whether it’s with immigrant communities in New York City, survivors of trafficking in Eastern Europe, displaced people in the Middle East, or most recently, single mothers in Iceland, evolved from questions or personal encounters that compelled me to dig deeper. That search for a connection is what creates intimacy in my work, offering a glimpse of truth and a bridge into complex narratives.


​Andrea reveals a bruise that her ill-tempered husband had recently left on her. Two years prior, she left 
​for Turkey to provide for her family of three young children, and was locked up by traffickers in an apart-
​ment ​which she eventually escaped. She is now back with her abusive partner in her native Moldova, 
​making ​ends meet.

AS: Re: Awhereness, how did you ask the women to go with you to these places where traumatic incidences had happened?

AL: I worked on this particular project with a partner who is native to Romania and has a background in human rights advocacy. We sat down with survivors who were open to meeting and sharing their stories with us and we just listened. We were interested in learning where they grew up and the relationships they formed throughout their lives, beyond the trauma of trafficking. That allowed us to understand and build context around what happened. Most often, trafficking was a result of building circumstances: coercion or domestic violence from a lover or family member, desperate poverty, lack of employment opportunities, corruption, and so on. We asked if they were willing to show us these places, and often we would journey together to confront and document the spaces, resulting in candid, collaborative, unexpected images, and ending with a shared experience that was simultaneously demystifying and profound. Many of them felt empowered with hope that their stories could educate others and facilitate much needed dialogue and change.


​“Yes, it was here. Because that’s where he lives. He called his lawyer and said that look, the masked 
​police (a.k.a., special unit) is looking for me. What do I do? And the first day he locked the door, he didn’t 
​want ​to come out, and then his lawyer told him that now you don’t have an option, you have to turn 
​yourself in. And ​he didn’t have a choice; he had to turn himself in. This is where they picked him up,
​yes, right from his home.”

– Ligia describing her boss’ arrest. He was arrested for human trafficking and other crimes. He is now a 
​free man. 

© Annie Ling, 2014


​“They wouldn’t even let me [stand] at the gate. They wouldn’t let me go out into the village. I ran once 
​here through the village, and I was running along, I don’t even remember what street it was. Lord! I 
​would take ​off in the fields. His father would chase me with the belt.”

– Cristina, 22-years-old, talking about the house in which she lived with her boyfriend’s family in a village 
​outside Timisoara, Romania. Cristina, who was trafficked in Germany at 17, grew up mostly on the 
​streets. ​Violence makes up a large part of street youth’s lives. 

© Annie Ling, 2014

AS: I have to say, while I am struck by many of your images, I also feel an overwhelming sadness from them.

AL: I’d prefer to say it’s honest, at least, to how I feel in response to some challenging or heartbreaking situations and stories I’ve encountered. Not all my work has a heaviness to it, but I am aware that a number of personal projects I’ve taken on are not easy to take in. Really, the work flows from pressing questions I have and also a desire to understand my relationship to the issues I find compelling. Sorrow may be on the surface, but there is also strength, just as something that appears strong or indestructible on the outside could also be broken on the inside. The tensions and paradoxes in life make for complex and meaningful stories, and with this I’m usually drawn to create work that delves deeper rather than wider. Personally, I’ve always found some hope and beauty within these layers. I intend to create work that resonates, pushes us to look closer and questions our perceptions.

Shut In

© Annie Ling, 2014 from “Shut In”


© Annie Ling, 2014 from “Tenements

A Floating Population

© Annie Ling, 2014 from “Floating Population”

AS: Do you feel a responsibility to make your work? 

AL: I feel a responsibility to serve my vision, to grow, to learn and to share what I’ve been given. I have been given a voice, so it’s a privilege and responsibility that I have to respect and nurture. Questions drive my work and I believe it is important to engage and articulate them. In the endless pursuit of answers and truth, I find myself asking more and more questions. And I’ve learned to accept that it is okay if we never arrive at answers. Questions are more important, I feel—they give us the opportunity to open discourse and challenge our preconceptions. I grew up moving nearly every year, was never quite settled or allowed to take root. It was not easy but that upbringing has offered me a unique set of perspectives that shape and serve my work.

To see more of Annie’s work, please click here.