Talking GOOD with Kay Chernush

Kay Chernush believes in the power of reinventing one’s self. It’s a central theme in her photography and the narrative of her own life.

She describes the moment following her double mastectomy when everything changed: “I experienced a strong sense of emptiness, as though I was dangling over a void. In that moment of facing ‘nothingness,’ I realized what a full and fortunate life I had: a wonderful and supportive husband, friends, security, and most importantly more life. I didn’t know what I would do or how I would reinvent myself, but I knew I wanted to take my photography in a different direction, and use what was left of my life to make a difference.”

When we face our own mortality, accomplishment does not always equate to meaning. Here was Kay Chernush, an award-winning photographer who had travelled internationally on behalf of Fortune 500 companies and NGOs; she had served with the Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development; and she was a recipient of a coveted Fulbright grant to India, where she studied contemporary Indian literature in English. Nevertheless, as Kay sat in the hospital, reflecting on her past and a future unknown, she yearned for greater meaning and purpose.

That purpose was to be found three years later, in 2005, while on a photography assignment for the U.S. State Department, which brought her face to face with the evils of human trafficking and modern slavery. Challenged and appalled by this gross human rights atrocity, Kay began working with anti-trafficking organizations in the U.S. and in cities around the world. She soon developed an innovative approach to the subject, using collage and constructed imagery and “sound narrative” that dignifies trafficked persons and re-frames how their stories are portrayed. After all, everyone deserves the chance to reinvent themselves.

In 2011, to broaden the scope of her project, Kay founded the nonprofit ArtWorks for Freedom, which uses the power of art to fight modern day slavery. The organization partners with artists and anti-trafficking organizations to create multi-faceted arts events that focus attention and inspire action against this global criminal enterprise. Kay’s art series, “Bought & Sold: Voices of Human Trafficking,” has been exhibited in outdoor art installations in major international cities (click on this link to listen to survivor stories). “My goal with this work is to prompt dialogue and creative action as viewers re-consider the commodification of human beings and the de-humanizing social interactions that make it possible for slavery to exist today, in every country, 150 years after we thought it had been abolished.”

Kay is fully dedicated to this work. She wants the world to know not only of the misery and horrors suffered by modern day slaves, but also of the many survivors whose indomitable spirits allow them to rebuild their lives. Today, Kay Chernush knows what her purpose is. Following is my interview with her.

1. IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE? My purpose in life is to create something of beauty and meaning that will change the world for the better.

2. HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU? Running a nonprofit organization after working as a freelance photographer for more than 25 years has been a huge challenge. It has taken over my life. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and frustrated.  But working directly with trafficking survivors and seeing their courage and resilience puts everything in perspective and inspires me to greater efforts.

3. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING? My life is made more meaningful by sharing my skills and resources to help marginalized and powerless people.

4. WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE? Malala and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai. Having lived and taught in a Muslim university in India, and knowing the oppressive social and religious mores faced by girls in so many countries, I see their actions as truly heroic. I would ask Malala how she conquers fear, both physical and psychological.  What is the source of her spunk and her capacity to forgive? I would ask her father how he would teach other fathers to let their daughters fly.

5. WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS? Human capital, in the form of passionate and energetic partners and a dynamic executive director to run our program. Creative capital, in the form of imaginative works that transform how people think about and deal with modern slavery. Financial capital, to underwrite a small staff and enable AWFF to commission new art so that we can engage an ever broader audience and build on our successes in Europe, Asia and the U.S.

6. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY? How can we change the moral landscape of our time so that modern slavery is seen as unacceptable? What more can we do to reach the hearts and minds of people in a way that will unleash their creative energies in the fight against this horrendous human abuse?

7. WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE? A Re-invented Life: How I Became an Artist-Activist. I decided on this title because I want to emphasize the importance of seizing new opportunities and possibilities. In my case I re-invented my life by blending my photographic skills with my desire to do good for others.

8. TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC? When I was young I thought I wanted to be a writer, but writing turned out to be incredibly painful for me and I’ve discovered that I’m better as a “do-er”.

9. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS? Follow your heart and do what gives you the most satisfaction, because that is what you will do best. That is what will make you the most effective. Be persistent but flexible. Be open to possibility. And don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. You’re not expected to know everything. Most of all, get started.

10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER? QUESTION: What were the greatest influences on you? ANSWER: There were three things, each leading to the other. First, my fabulous high school teacher kept a sign on the blackboard that said, “Your teacher could be wrong, think for yourself!” That opened up a new way of learning. Then, living in India after college exposed me to a whole new world that I had to grapple with and learn to navigate. It was a life-changing experience. Being a photographer further broadened my horizons and allowed me to explore worlds that were not my own and eventually brought me face-to-face with global human trafficking.

LINKS: ArtWorks for Freedom, Twitter, Facebook, Kay Chernush Professional Website