(CNN)The steel gray clouds hung like an ominous slate blanket over the far reaches of Lake Volta, Ghana. From the shores I stood gazing out at a wooden fishing boat on what I presumed to be a family out fishing for the afternoon: two older boys and their three younger brothers, messing around with fishing poles and nets, catching fish for their evening meal.
My comment to that effect drew a sharp retort from my translator. This was not a family outing; these were enslaved teenagers and their young charges on a predawn to after-dark workday on the lake. It brought me up short. As a photographer who has traveled to more than 150 countries, often to document forced labor and human trafficking in dangerous conditions, I thought I had a pretty thorough awareness of the social and humanitarian horrors of modern slavery.
Unlike some of my other expeditions, however, there was nothing secretive about this. I did not have to sneak into a Nepalese brick kiln factory to document workers stacking and loading dozens of bricks on their heads in sweltering 100-plus degree heat. Or climb 200 feet down a rickety abandoned mine shaft to photograph enslaved gold miners. No, here on Lake Volta, the largest artificial lake in the world, child slavery was in plain sight. There was no attempt to hide anything: right before me were children as young as five forced to work up to 18 hours a day, with no pay, often little or no food, in dangerous, dirty conditions. The sheer brazenness stunned me.
According to the nonprofit organization Free the Slaves, more than one-third of the 1,620 households surveyed in and around Lake Volta housed a victim of child trafficking or someone held in slave-like conditions. Yet this is not an ancient, entrenched tradition in this place: Lake Volta was only created in 1965 when the forestland it now covers was flooded during the construction of a hydroelectric dam to provide Ghana’s electricity supply.Ghana