An art exhibition that sheds light on human trafficking in Mexico opens today in Rittenhouse.

“How Did I Get Here?” at Twenty-Two gallery is the fruit of three years of visits by local artist Ada Trillo, who took some 4,000 photographs in the brothels of Juarez. Trillo’s subjects, many who posed nude, shared stories of abduction, addiction and gang violence. Excerpts of their testimonies will also be on display.

While Juarez, just across the river from El Paso, may be known for vicious drug cartels, the growing connections between these groups and sex trafficking hasn’t been discussed nearly as much in the U.S. Trillo, who is from Juarez, worked with a former sex worker and social worker (both women) to capture the experiences of the lowest-paid women in the city’s sex trade. Trillo is donating money made from her sales to the international NGO Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and to Mexico City-based Mother Antonia Center of the Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer, which has a branch in Juarez that works directly with the women.

“When it came also to the show, I can’t take money from it,” said Trillo. “Because even though these women have been so nice to me, how can I take advantage of them? …I paid them, I paid the same amount of money that a guy would pay them which is 15 minutes.”

Women would often come to her wanting a break from seeing up to 25 men a day, but still wouldn’t want to lose business to other sex workers. Trillo and her team would seek consent, then tell the women to share as much of their stories as they’d like.

The 5-year-old son of one of her subjects was shot in the neck; his name is visible on her tattooed arm in one of Trillo’s photographs. Another subject’s arm is covered in bruises, the marks of using infected needles. One sex worker she spoke with is permanently crippled because she couldn’t afford the treatment for her back injury. These are examples of one reason, Trillo said, why she photographed them nude; she felt their bodies could tell also the story.

Trillo spoke with Billy Penn about her experience speaking and photographing these women. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What drew you to this project?

It actually came by chance. I was trying to work on a project on immigration. Since I was in a border town, Juarez and El Paso, I wanted to something showing the trajectory. Well guess what? That’s basically impossible because the people that smuggle, human trafficking here to the United States, they don’t want me taking their picture. And even if they did, at night I would have to use a flash. They can’t be crossing the river with (Trillo begins to imitate flashes). It just couldn’t work. I started off trying to expose an issue, and to show that these are people putting their lives in danger… I’m exposing them with my flash. So I was very sad that I couldn’t do the project. But I was already at the border with my camera, with everything, and the social worker that I was [working with who] also works with immigrants [said], “There’s an opportunity to go to the brothels, do you want it?” I said it’s “Ehhh, it’s going to be like Tijuana with a pretty girls in miniskirts.” And no, that wasn’t the brothels she was referring to. This is where the mafia is. These girls are charging three dollars to have intercourse.

You have the girls that are right on the border— they have the American clientele. Those girls usually get like $25. But girls that are more in the center, and not so close to the bridge, they get paid nothing because they’re basically hostages of the cartels, and the smugglers and gangs. You obviously have the head of the cartels that are really high up, and they get the girls that are charging like $1,000 or what have you, like soap actresses and really, really pretty girls. It goes in layers.

You mentioned that you had good relationships with all of them, except for one, who tried to get you killed.

Oh my God. She was a nightmare. So I went to the room, started taking [photos] and she went (Trillo imitates making a fuss). And she wanted to grab my camera. So that’s where the shoot stopped. This happened two years ago. The last time I went there — the girls come to me now because they know I’m in town, we can take the picture, we’ll chat. Well, she shows up. I was like, “I can’t take your picture but I’ll give you 70 pesos.” I give them around 300, 150 depends. (Note: Currently, 70 pesos is around $4; 300 pesos is almost $8.50, and 300 pesos is roughly $17.)  I said, “I’ll said I’ll give you 70 pesos for taking the time to come, but I can’t take your picture because we had an incident last time.” And she got really angry.

We finished at that brothel, and we were fine, then we went to [another] brothel… By that time, she had already gone to the guys who sell the heroin and told them that I was a reporter.  Because Blanca is asking questions. Not questions that are going to put us in trouble, but questions like, “What type of drug do you use?” You know, stuff like that. And writing them down… So it could be easily perceived as that I was a reporter. But I’m not. I’m an artist. I left my tripod and everything, because Luli came over and the guy was like “Get the fuck out of here because the other guys are coming for you.”

Credit: Ada Trillo

When you went on your first outing, what was it that made your push through your feelings and continue the project?

I have the relationship with the team— the three of us that go. I like the girls. I like to follow up with them also. It started to become very interesting because when I saw the pictures, a lot of the times, the pictures say the story. I wanted to create something that moved us. How I was going to show, what I was going to do with it— I had no idea. But I knew I was doing something that… moves you, touches you. That was important to me.

You took 4,000 photos or so over three years, when did you feel like you were ready for an exhibit?

It’s a lot of lot knocking on doors, right? Because in Mexico, nobody wants to see it. Nobody wants to see what’s going on with the women who’ve been oppressed. Many of them have a third-grade education. So the factories won’t give them work— for a factory to give you work, you need a seventh-grade education. So Mexicans, they don’t want to see in your face the oppression of these women who they weren’t allowed to go school because the parents couldn’t afford to send them. To get this in Mexico was very difficult, and to get it in Philadelphia was just as difficult. But I happen to work [at Twenty-Two Gallery.] I’m the director… I am going to get the opportunity to show this again? I don’t know. It’s a very hard subject for people to swallow.

[Gallery owners] want pretty things; they want things that are going to make people happy. That’s usually the response… Not a lot of lot of people (she points to one of her photographs) want her in their living room. I would, because it makes me feel something. But I’m also a big fan of Frida Kahlo, who maybe didn’t make stuff that was very pretty, but it definitely touches you. Or Mary Ellen Mark, a photographer; she did the brothels of India.. It pulls a nerve and makes you feel something.

Exhibition: “How Did I Get Here?” opening reception, July 13, from 6-8 pm, Twenty-Two Gallery, 236 South 22nd St. Exhibition runs through Aug. 6.

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for BillyPenn.com. She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic Monthly and Spoke,...