Defiling the Children, 1993

In June 21, 1993 issue of Time, the magazine published a cover story on the rise of prostitution around the world. The Cold War had recently ended and in the chaos, economic collapses, and the reshaping of political alliances that followed, the global sex trade boomed, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Time reported from 26 locations around the globe, from European strip clubs to Himalayan villages and mining towns in the Amazon. In Russia, assistant picture editor Jay Colton came across moving photos of child prostitutes, taken by Alexei Ostrovsky, an 18-year old freelancer.

Distributed first by Agence France-Presse, they showed a pimp and his ‘team’. Time magazine wrote:

Sasha, a scruffy-looking long-haired resident of Moscow, has a lucrative profession. He sells the sexual services of small boys. His base of operations is a garden in front of Moscow’s magnificent Bolshoi Theatre, where both local and foreign clients know to seek him out. Sasha pimps for a number of male teenagers who hang out with him near the Bolshoi, but his main “team” consists of three younger boys — Marik, 8, and Volodya and Dima, both 9.

The three boys wound up in Sasha’s clutches when they were cast into the street during the social upheaval that followed the collapse of communism. The ex-collective farmworker dresses them up in girls’ clothes and sells their favors, given eagerly, he maintains, for as little as $20 a day. “I am helping them,” he insists, flashing gold teeth set into a pockmarked face. “This type of work is profitable. The boys are grateful.”

… Sasha says Marik was sold to him for a case of vodka, while he found Volodya abandoned at the Moscow railway station — together with thousands of other youngsters who have turned the terminal into a street urchin’s paradise.

Time published six photos that showed Sasha applying makeup to the boys, feeding them, and seeking clients for them. Other pictures, which showed the boys made up as girls, the magazine held back, noting that they were too explicit to publish.

A controversy was quickly unleased, with questions being asked about the authenticity of the photographs. Richard Ellis, Reuters’s photo editor in Moscow, claimed that Ostrovsky had staged the photographs. Others noted the stilted poses and that no prostitute, pimp or client would allow their pictures to be taken so willingly in such a compromising way. A Russian parliamentary commitee called for a police investigation into this story which was now turning into a national disgrace, but the subsequent investigation by the Moscow Police, which had all the reasons to cover up the affair, concluded that the story is a “fake”, that the children were not prostitutes, that no crime had been committed.

Time admitted that in the anything-goes atmosphere of post-Communist Russia, the magazine had struggled to verify the exact details. Five independent sources confirmed that Sasha was a pimp and that young boys were part of his ring, but the magazine was unable to speak to the two boys before the article was published. They were reportedly out of Moscow.

Ostrovsky eventually noted that while Sasha and the boys existed, the photos were staged. He asked Sasha to “show us how he negotiates with a client,” but he said no client would want to have his photo taken. So the photo of Sasha selling one boy to “a regular customer” was staged using a car belonging to a friend of Ostrovsky. However, he insisted that the guy sitting in the car sometimes bought boys from Sasha.

Ostrovsky claimed the same about the man in the park bench photo, which showed one boy, sitting “on the lap of a client before leaving with him.” He said while they did not leave together that time, the man had been a client of Sasha.

Another photo showed Sasha giving soup to the two boys. Time’s caption read: “Dinner at home outside Moscow; the lure for the kids is food and a place to live.” The photo was taken in an apartment where neither Sasha nor the boys live. In fact, the boys lived with their parents, but frequently run away to Sasha. Ostrovsky noted that he still believed the boys were prostitutes. “When we saw the kids, how dirty they were, their behavior, we were less doubtful.”

Time finally managed to track down Marik who confirmed that he did work with Sasha as a prostitute and that some of his customers liked him to dress up as a girl. He noted that the photos were staged, but that he was not paid to be in them. But his story varied. To other journalists, he said the opposite. Either he was being pressured by Sasha or by the police not to admit to prostitution, or he changed his story frequently to garner press attention.

At various times, Sasha admitted to Ostrovsky that the whole thing was fake, only later to reverse. Meanwhile, Ellis met with Sasha to persuade him to say the story was false. For this, and criticizing another news organization so publicly, Ellis was “recalled” to London and he subsequently resigned.

The story underlined a problem with local photojournalism in various parts of the world. With Western news organizations have a strong appetite for shocking photographs, freelance photographers, with little journalism training, were eager to provide, for a price, whatever their editors wanted.

See other photos from Time’s photo-essay below:

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