Poignant Photos Capture The Sobering Lives Of Sex Workers And Children In India
‘In the Shadows of Kolkata’ is a photo series by 21-year-old Mumbai-born photographer Souvid Datta in which he captures the sobering lives of sex workers and their children in the Indian city’s red light district of Sonagachi. Located in the city’s north, it is run by organized gangs and an estimated 12,000 prostitutes under 18 are raped daily for £1.
Datta’s reason for embarking on this project was initially personal. He moved to London when he was eight and returned to Kolkata every year to visit his grandparents. One day he ran away from home after throwing a tantrum and wandered into a slum, where he caught a glimpse of a young girl in pink being led into a dark alleyway by a middle-aged man in a suit. That memory stayed with him but it was only years later that Datta realized he had in fact stumbled upon Sonagachi.
His other motivation was political; after graduating he returned to Kolkata and volunteered at an NGO. Armed with knowledge of the area’s reputation and haunted by his childhood experience, he revisited Sonagachi where he was jolted by a deep sense of injustice at the terrible conditions, gang operations, and the lack of government control that had allowed sex trafficking to thrive.
He explained in an interview with Feature Shoot, “India is a country riddled with poverty, corruption and struggle but the state of housing, the very obvious gang operations, police absence and network of traffickers and victims created a concentration of social issues that I had never experienced before. And the injustice of it all hit me like a truth seemingly incompatible with my comfortable, sheltered way of life. I determined to return one day once I had found a positive means of contributing.”
The photographer strove to understand as many perspectives of the situation up close while acknowledging the numerous complex issues involved, taking care to portray the women and children humanly and fairly.
He spoke about the children he photographed, saying that though a few local NGOs run campaigns to persuade mothers to send their children to boarding school, only a small number do so. The majority of children drop out of school at a young age due to poverty and discrimination, with young girls being picked up by local ‘madams’, pimps or traffickers, and young men succumbing to the gang culture. Many children simply fall into prostitution, having grown up in brothels seeing their mothers service clients and growing used to sexual stereotypes and exploitation.
Datta staunchly believes in the power of photography in affecting social change–“I firmly believe that photography has a role to play in provoking thought, spurring dialogue, and promoting action–therein being a potentially potent ingredient in an antidote to social evils”–but admits that there is little his photos will do in improving the lives of the women and children in Sonagachi, saying that it would require “massive political, economic and legal overhauls, not to mention years of reshaping social values.”
Through his photos, Datta hopes to educate and inform people and shed some light on the sex trade by giving the workers and their children a voice. “What is immediately worthwhile for me is the experience of earning an individual’s trust, and for a while, touching lives, sharing stories and learning from each other in a dignified, respectful, curious manner. This is the only honest thing I can convince people of offering them, and surprisingly it is also what seems to open the most doors for me.”
[via Feature Shoot, images via Feature Shoot and Souvid Datta]