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.
Sandra Johnson, president and founder of Triad Ladder of Hope, said rewarding a person with food to induce their cooperation fulfills the definition of sex trafficking.
“That is coercing her to perform an act and to be fed in return is definitely sex trafficking,” she said.
He exerted complete control over her life, even insisting she not to tell anyone about their relationship. Malika said Chris forced her to sell her car and started cashing her paychecks from the theater for her. He started driving her to and from school and made sure he knew where she was at all times.
“He followed me everywhere,” Malika said. “When we would go to the grocery stores and I would try to go to another aisle, he would make such a big deal out of it. He would say things like ‘Don’t go!’ and, ‘I love you so much, don’t ever leave me.’”
A major misconception about sex trafficking is that it only pertains to forced prostitution or sex slavery involving foreign women, but the phenomenon is actually much broader. The crime is much more variable and prevalent in the United States and even in North Carolina than most people realize, according to the Human Trafficking and Smuggling Center, a branch of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Although friends and family thought her relationship with Chris was strange, they didn’t say anything because of how happy she seemed. She was hiding in plain sight.
Once when she and Chris visited a doctor’s office because he had gotten sick, Malika noticed the strange stares the couple would receive.
“I guess they thought it was weird that this 40-year-old guy came in with this young Indian girl,” Malika said. “But they didn’t say anything because they didn’t want to be rude.”
He also kept track of the number of times they had sex.
“I noticed one day that he had been tallying something on his calendar,” Malika said. She realized later that it was the number of times he had taken advantage of her.
“Most people think trafficking happens in urban areas, but we lived out in the country,” said Malika, who lived with Chris in Summerfield. “I was so isolated; I was so alone.”
While it may seem strange that Malika stayed in such a bizarre relationship, to her it seemed normal. Chris never beat her or physically assaulted her. His control over her was much more discreet.
Eventually, Chris started talking seriously about marriage, and more often than she was comfortable with.
“That’s when I left him,” she recalled. “I was about to graduate high school and I realized that I didn’t want to stay with him.”
She quietly escaped and started living with a friend who worked at the movie theater. The months that followed included nights of partying and dating other people who were closer in age. Chris tried to find her through friends and phone calls from time to time but Malika managed to avoid him because she no longer worked at the theater. For the second time, her life seemed to return to normal.
It wasn’t until a couple of months later when she ran into a few of her former coworkers at the theater that her life fell apart again. She found out that Chris had been approaching some of the other girls at the theater for his “art project.” Shock and embarrassment overwhelmed her.
“I thought the project was our special thing,” Malika said. “I was so confused.”
Katherine Carr was among the girls with whom Malika had reunited.
Carr had worked at the theater in her early twenties and had become friends with Malika during her time there around 2004. She remembers Chris well.
“He was known to be a photographer around the theater,” Carr said. “But everyone thought he was creepy. It always seemed like he had ulterior motives.”
Over the course of the two years that Carr worked at the theater, she remembers the projectionist approaching her at least five times.
“He usually found me when I was alone and in a dark theater with no one else around,” Carr said. “It started out as an innocent project but his requests became increasingly more provocative and revealing.”
What began as suggestions that she pose shirtless escalated to asking her to model with nothing but black velvet gloves on. Among the seven or so girls that worked there, at least three had been approached by Chris, Carr said. As far as she knew, he had been a longtime employee of the company and was friends with one of the managers.
“I never reported him because he never did anything overt,” said Carr, who never posed for photos and still avoids the theater almost 10 years later. “But we always talked about how strange he was.”
After leaving for a better job in 2008, Carr kept in touch with Malika through Facebook.
“I always thought that it was strange that she was with him,” Carr said. “He didn’t seem like he was good for her.”
Shortly after discovering Chris’ true character, Malika became heavily depressed and turned to self-harm, cutting her arms.
Then, in 2009, Chris re-entered her life through his death.
“When I heard that he had died of colon cancer, my first thought was that I needed to get those pictures back,” she said.
Malika managed to contact Chris’ sister, who was then working at the same theater. The two met privately after the funeral, in an alley behind the theater. Malika expected to be handed an envelope or maybe just a handful of photographs, but what she received instead was a vast collection that Chris had secretly stashed in that cardboard box. She realized that he had been mass-producing images of her by creating multiple copies of different shots, but never found proof that he had sold them. A few weeks later, Malika reconnected with Carr and they met up to talk about Chris’ death and the photographs.
“We cried together and I reassured Anna that her feelings of horror and shock were valid,” Carr said. “He was disgusting.”
Malika tore up the majority of the pictures in March 2011 after finally coming to terms with her anger and accepting Chris’ true nature. She kept just four.
“I wanted people to believe me, but also it was part of me knowing that my pain is valid and it was real,” she said.
Creases and water stains blemish one of the photos that displays an almost unrecognizable image of her.
“I look dead,” she said. “I look like I’ve been drugged.”
In the image, blankets of different colors and sizes cover the beige, dingy couch upon which a strange and more broken version of her sits, left leg crossed over the right. She’s naked and only barely covered by a blanket, with locks of her straight black hair falling over her breasts and genitals. Her shoulders and thighs are exposed, but there’s nothing sexy or seductive about the image. Her face looks sunken in and she wears an expression of lost innocence as she gazes up with unfocused eyes. Her makeup is smudged; she looks exhausted. The whole scene complete with the flowery blankets and stuffed animals in the background has a lewd aura about it.
It serves as a grim reminder of what Malika has been through, but now it helps tell her story.
The same year she retrieved the photographs, Malika enrolled in a Christian counseling program in St. Louis for women with self-controlling issues called Mercy Ministries. The program helps girls who have experienced traumatic events. They learn coping skills, how to make good life choices and how to form positive body images. Ranging in age from 13 to 28, the women participate in group-counseling and at the end of the program share their stories with each other. Malika graduated from the ministry in 2012.
Now, she uses her past to raise awareness locally and internationally about human trafficking, prostitution and sexual exploitation.
She’s spoken to several law-enforcement groups, including the Greensboro Police Department, informing officers about what to look for in trafficking victims and how to treat them.
“A lot of times they will seem like they have no control over their lives,” Malika said. “Traffickers are smart and they often pick victims with troubled pasts and rough home lives. You have to treat them like people.”
At one particular talk in Raleigh, Malika recalled that her words moved a police officer to tears.
“I never knew how to approach these women,” he told Malika. “Now I know how to help them.”
According to the Human Trafficking and Smuggling Center, many traffickers rename their girls as another method of control, and tattoo the new names or even barcodes on their bodies to take away their identities. More often than not, perpetrators employ a “grooming process” to recruit their victims through flattery and material items. They then entice them to engage in sexual conduct, which can lead to forcing them to have sex with more men and, ultimately, to prostitution.
The quieter, lesser known form of sex trafficking experienced by Malika is not unusual, according to Dawn Hawkins, who is the executive director of the National Center for Sexual Exploitation.
“The kind of trafficking that happened to Anna is one of the most common but the least known about,” she said. “Even the victims don’t know it’s happening to them sometimes.”
The relationships usually start with older men approaching young girls in their mid to late teenage years because of different vulnerabilities, Hawkins said. What happens next varies from girl to girl. While some traffickers employ photography, others use sexting or revenge porn — the distribution of sexually explicit media without consent of the individuals involved. And it happens to all demographics.
Despite the problem being widespread, there is little recourse for victims of sex trafficking, Hawkins said.
While it is difficult to know the exact number of human trafficking cases because of the discreet nature of the crime, a 2014 report by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center ranked North Carolina in the Top 10 of the worst human trafficking states in the nation based on hotline calls — California, Texas and New York top the list.
“Charlotte is a big one because of its size but Greensboro is also pretty big because of its central location and its highways,” Malika said. “So many people have no idea it’s here. I’ve had cops be so surprised when I mention it to them.”
In addition to speaking to law enforcement, Malika has helped pass legislation tightening laws around human trafficking. In 2013, she spoke in support of the Safe Harbor Bill in the North Carolina Senate. The bill was passed in July 2013 and became law that October. It increased criminal charges against traffickers, expunged records of those charged with prostitution and increased the age of protection from 16 to 18, so that anyone under 18 would be considered a minor. Malika hopes to eventually raise the age of protection to 21 to cover potential victims in college.
Since graduating from Mercy Ministries in 2012, Malika has been busy. She studied abroad in Malta through UNCG’s study abroad program, where she met with the European nation’s president, and embarked on two speaking tours in California and New York, the latter of which helped her realize her dream of starting a fashion line. Partnering with a clothing manufacturer called Elegantees, Malika designed a line that employs Nepalese sex-trafficking survivors through the Nepali Rescue Project. She donates a majority of the proceeds to the organization. She even showed her line in February in the esteemed New York Fashion Week at the Andaz Hotel and is currently working on a fall collection.
She also garnered a lot of national attention through radio interviews on stations like KLOVE and organizations like the Ashton and Demi Moore Foundation.
Looking forward, Malika hopes to continue advocacy and wants to eventually work for a nonprofit that helps rehabilitate at-risk youth. Whatever she does, she can’t imagine a time when she won’t be advocating for women who experience exploitation.
“Human trafficking has so many faces,” Malika said.
And she plans to reveal them all.