by Sayaka Matsuoka • photography by Caleb Smallwood
The box measured a foot across by a foot wide.
It was worn, made of cardboard, like the ones people use for moving, and it weighed what felt like several pounds. It was not what Anna Malika had expected.
Photographs of all different sizes, shot from varying angles in both color and in black and white filled the box. And the model staring back at her in each of the images was a younger, more vulnerable version of herself.
They reflected a dark time in Malika’s life. It was the early 2000s; she had been young, in high school, and had been manipulated, coerced and “brainwashed” by a man more than twice her age who she thought loved her, and whom she had been convinced she loved in turn. Shocked, disgusted and heartbroken, Malika eventually realized that she had been a victim of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. That moment, standing there with the open box, was a turning point, and now she’s telling her story to help others avoid the same situation.
Malika, who is Indian, was adopted as a 10-week-old by a white family and raised in Greensboro. At a young age, while she was still a toddler, she was targeted by someone close to her and sexually abused, a common enough story. In the years that followed, she grew up in relative normalcy among her adopted family, going to school and playing with neighborhood kids, but life took another dark turn as she approached her eighth birthday.
“That was when the abuse started again,” Malika said. This time it was both emotional and physical, perpetrated by yet another person to whom she had been close.
Today, at this point in her healing, Malika doesn’t feel comfortable disclosing who either of these people are.
In addition to the harrowing experience of the abuse, Malika always felt a lingering disconnect from her family because of their racial differences.
“I had struggled with being Indian my whole life,” Malika said. “All of the kids at school, including my friends, were white and it taught me from a young age that I needed to look and feel a certain way to be beautiful.”
The years that followed proved hard for Malika. Her family life became unstable as her parents divorced — opting for joint custody and leading her to divide her time between her mother and father. Her life was spiraling out of control; by the time she was in middle school, she had developed an eating disorder, propelled by her low self-esteem and self-hatred.
“I was always wanting to be a stick figure and be white,” Malika said. “And I was neither.”
During her junior year of high school at Grimsley, she began working at the concession stand and as an usher at a movie theater in Greensboro. Malika requested that the name of the theater not be published because she still knows people who used to work there.
There, she made friends with other girls who were in their late teens and early twenties. Life seemed to be back on track.
She said she was 16 or 17 when she crossed paths with the 40-year-old white projectionist of the movie theater, whom she refers to as “Chris” out of respect for the sensitivities of his family, who live in the Triad. Looking back, she said she’s not sure whether it’s the trauma she experienced or the 10 years that have passed that account for her lack of certainty about her age.
“I was first introduced to him by another girl who worked there,” Malika said. “He began complimenting me and we eventually made a connection through conversations about music. He offered me free guitar lessons and later we started a romantic and physical relationship.”
Not long after, Malika’s strained relationship with her mother reached a breaking point as she was kicked out of the house for bad behavior, causing her to move in with this man more than twice her age.
After years of being abused by people close to her, lacking the emotional connection to her family and battling with self-esteem issues, Malika found what she considered to be solace in Chris, whom she thought of as her boyfriend.
“He always told me that I was beautiful and that he loved me,” she said. “And I believed every word of it. It was like I had been brainwashed.”
That’s why when Chris asked her to participate in a personal “art project,” she didn’t second-guess his motives.
“I wanted more than anything to be his No. 1 model so I said yes,” she said. “I didn’t realize what I was getting into.”
He took pictures of Malika nude, in various provocative poses.
At times she didn’t even remember being photographed.
“Sometimes I would wake up naked on the kitchen floor with no recollection of how I had gotten there,” she recounted. “He would just say, ‘Oh, you were sleepwalking.’ I literally believed every word he said. I never sleepwalked in my life; he was completely lying to me. He would either drug me or something.”
And while suspicion set in at times, it was never enough to prompt Malika to leave.
“I just wanted him to keep loving me,” she explained.
At such a young age, Malika had never been in a serious relationship before and given her past, she had no idea what a healthy relationship looked or felt like. Instead, she longed for the missing affection and love many people receive through family, and accepted Chris’ attention and what she thought was love. In reality, Malika says now that she had become a victim of human trafficking.
There are two branches of human trafficking: labor and sex trafficking, the latter of which Malika says she had found herself a victim. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” Additionally, a commercial sex act is defined as “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.”
Malika said that the more she posed for his pictures, the more food he fed her.