The fifty dollar baby and the smiling sisters

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The fifty dollar baby and the smiling sisters

March 17, 2014 -

I visited Sofia Bulgaria in 2012 and my life was changed forever. I was volunteering for The A21 Campaign, and on my last day I visited a small village to photograph some Roma Gypsy street portraits.

Upon entering the village I approached a group of people to take their photo. I snapped a group photo and I noticed one of the men was holding a baby. I asked him “May I photograph your baby? He’s beautiful.”

He said yes, so I took a picture. While I was shooting, the man said something in Bulgarian. Suddenly, my translator told me that it was time to go. I asked why and he responded that the man had just told me “If you think my baby is beautiful, you can buy him for fifty dollars.” I thought it was a joke and looked up, smiling at the father. He wasn’t smiling back. My translator was right, we needed to leave.

That moment changed my life forever.

As we were driving away I felt in my heart that I needed to go back, I needed to shoot more photos and not run away. I think it was God telling me that I wasn’t done there.

We went to a different part of the village. We walked down the dirt streets, plagued with wild dogs, garbage, and abandoned-looking houses which were not actually abandoned. This was my first type of “third world” experience, which was so strange, because it was only two miles away from the beautiful capitol buildings of downtown Sofia.

I started by shooting individual portraits of a few interested and smiling kids . The bulky camera around my neck attracted more kids and five quickly turned into fifty. I was surrounded by children ranging from one year old to sixteen. Most of the older girls were carrying babies, probably their own.

The “fifty dollar baby” was temporarily muted in my brain, as each kid’s unique face was something that I had never photographed before. The creative side of me was beginning to flow and time flew by. Everyone had so much personality, and I could see that their eyes saw a much different world than the one I see. I couldn’t help but photograph every willing baby, child and adult. I couldn’t believe how happy some of them were. Most didn’t have shoes and were covered in dirt, wearing worn and tattered clothing.

We started walking around the village, followed by the large group of laughing and smiling kids.

Gypsy sisters who followed Tanner Wendell Stewart around village in Bulgaria (Credit: Tanner Wendell Stewart)After a while I noticed two little girls, perhaps ages two and four, holding hands and walking inches to my right. I shot a portrait of both of them, they had beautiful smiles and I think they were sisters. After an hour I explored deeper into the village; the group started to lose interest in following me, but the two little girls didn’t leave. For the next two hours they stuck to my side, looking up at me, smiling with the biggest grins, with the utmost trust in the stranger with a camera around his neck. Their faces beautiful and innocent, I realized how easy it would be for someone like myself to just take them away. I wondered if anyone would even notice.

I don’t know what kind of parents those girls have, but the harsh reality is that girls from as young as five in that kind of village are often taken or sold into the sex trade.  Beautiful, innocent girls sold as commodities. Over 20,000 in Europe are added per year to the overwhelming number of nearly 30 million slaves worldwide. Human trafficking has risen by 27% in recent years and worldwide generates $39 billion dollars a year.

The A21 campaign focuses on these kind of girls. They prevent sales with education and awareness, they partner with law enforcement to prosecute the traffickers, and they protect and restore girls who are rescued.

I left after three hours in that village with three faces engraved into my heart and mind. The two smiling sisters, and the fifty-dollar baby. I will never forget those faces and my life will never be the same.

<iframe style=”float: left; border: 1px solid #000000; background-color: #C0C0C0; padding: 2px; margin: 10px; -moz-border-radius: 3px; -khtml-border-radius: 3px; -webkit-border-radius: 3px; border-radius: 3px;” width=”400″ height=”225″ src=”″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>{/source}After that day, I was driven and inspired to do something. I needed to do my part to abolish human trafficking. My idea was different; to use my passion and talent: photography.

My idea was Shoot The Skies. A 365 daily photo journal in 2013 to end modern day slavery.

The idea was simple. Create a year of awe-inspiring photographs and stories, self publish a book with all 365 photographs, and give away 100% of the proceeds to abolish human trafficking.

I successfully finished that project as the clock ended on New Year’s Eve of 2013. It was the best year of my life, as I traveled around the world to create a collection of work I’m proud to publish into a book. This project meant so much to me that I even became homeless for 9 months so I could spend all my money on traveling.

Shoot the Skies: day 224 of 365 - lightning above some peaks as seen across a field in Wallowa County  (Credit: Tanner Wendell Stewart)On February 1st I started my crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. My fundraising goal is to pre-sell 1000 books at $45 each by April 2nd. $45,000 in 60 days will pay for the funding necessary to self publish the first print run photo books. The book will be a 400 page 8×10 book, signed by me, and will cost $17 dollars to make; the remaining $28 dollars per pre-order will be donated to The A21 Campaign. I’ve already raised over 85% of my $45,000 goal—that’s over $39,000 dollars in 43 days. I have 17 days to raise another $6,000 dollars. If you want to help fund or promote the book, you can check out my campaign over at Indiegogo.

Like those girls that followed me, I look up and trust that Jesus is worth following. His example and love for the world are what make me follow in His footsteps. Because of what He has done in my life and His love for the world, my biggest desire is to light up the darkness and use my voice for the voiceless. It is a dream come true to use my passion and the gift that He’s given me, to photograph the skies that He paints and help save the lives of modern day slaves.

Tanner Wendell Stewart is a Seattle-based Emmy Award winning photographer with a desire to bring change to our world through photographic art. His Shoot the Skies project is designed to raise awareness and funds to support anti-human trafficking.

More by Tanner Wendell Stewart

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