While Pipeline is the culmination of this particular project, Perlino’s work on urban cultures and societal marginals is not new: Lyon: des corps dans la ville in particular, a research project on prostitution, city suburbs, and the Algerian travesties is iconic for the photographer’s subtlety in revealing psychological and emotional momentums in her images, the intimacies and frailties of humanness amid most unexpected, degrading, sometimes impossible conditions. Pipeline does not look at trafficking through the lens of physical violence and control; instead, it subtly investigates the psychological and emotional pressures, the struggles to survive and the silent scars that most carry throughout their entire lives. To understand the lives these women live – and this photographic documentary – one must plunge deep into how politics, ritualistic beliefs, legislation faults, transnational policies, and poverty each draw distinctive and multilayered contexts that need to be addressed in order to understand the project’s implications. “The local papers call the routes travelled by the sex slaves the pipeline“, says Giuseppe Carrisi in the fragments from his book La fabbrica delle prostitute quoted in the opening of Pipeline. “And to tell the truth there is not much difference between the girls and the oil: both mean big money.”
The photographer’s view of landscapes and quotidian rituals in the first part of the book leave the viewer with a sense of difference, disquiet, and concern. Images of the landscape or settings such as a bar mix with glimpses into the intimacy of apartments, daily routines and isolated situations to reveal the fragmented and distorted living conditions these women must face upon their arrival in Italy. A few girls in an image round up around a bag to eat. As we’re being told, none of the girls eat Italian food; they all eat African food and eat as they used to back in Africa. A market controlled by the Chinese brings products via London at higher prices, in a reflection of the difficulties of social and cultural integration, but also of the transnational networks that control and regulate these women’s lives. Through all daily rituals and urban settings, the peripheries and marginality, one can observe that the few images of enjoyment are but a distraction, a diversion from always having to remember and from the unbearable burden of both memory and misleading aspirations. Forgetting and deception can be sensed in Perlino’s photographs, along a constant need to escape and take refuge in silence and self-abandonment.
To fully understand the extent of Perlino’s investigation, the psychological drives that urge women into desperately clinging to the scattered dreams and promises of finding safety, fortune and generosity, one needs to be aware of the intermix between extreme poverty, discrimination, lack of education, and official corruption. Elena Perlino’s Pipeline documents more than just the particularities of prostitution, trafficking, the cultural specificities of the Italian cities these women live in: it documents the very things we consciously chose to elude, ignore, and dismiss; its view upon the fleeting and unnoticed lives of trafficked sex workers reveals just how little do we understand about or are willing to confront the horrid aspects of the everyday and the conditions of those we always and consciously think of less and always in our service.