The red light district in Calcutta is considered a shameful place. Those riding on buses passing by are expected to turn away because if they are caught looking in, they are greatly shamed. This is why photographing this area is forbidden and any tourists who have accidentally wandered into the neighborhood naively taking pictures have been seen mobbed by the locals to have their cameras destroyed.
I’m still haunted by the women I saw on the streets. Hands on their hips, red lips, and eyes that are glazed. Very little life exist in them because they are used, beaten, and are regarded as the lowest creatures on earth. These women were sold into sex trafficing by their fathers, boyfriends, or husbands. Some were kidnapped from villages from Nepal for their desirable fair skin. They did not choose to be a prostitute, prostitution chose them.
Each night 10,000 women line the streets where 20,000 men come to have their pick. If you do the math it means some women make more than one transaction a night while others may not be able to bring much back to their families.
In the midst of such darkness, I found hope. I visited with 2 organizations who have not only chosen to work in this undesirable area, but also to live in it. SariBari is a company who makes beautiful blankets, scarves, bags, and other gorgeous things out of recycled saris. Freeset is a company who specializes in Jute bags and as well as handmade organic cotton t-shirts. Beth with SariBari is a young women of only 30 who has spent her entire 20’s working at SariBari. Kerry & Annie who founded Freeset moved their entire family with 4 children to live in this neighborhood. Both companies employ the women who are in the sex trade to empower them towards freedom. They provide these ladies not only with employment, but with an education, childcare, healthcare, and counseling. They have given up their entire lives for this cause.
A week ago, I was given a very rare opportunity to photograph the women who work at Freeset. It was a humbling experience that they had not given to other photographers. It is dangerous to show their faces due to the possibility of their former owners coming after them. However I got to spend time with each and every one of them and captured them in action. Before long they were all crowded around my camera so that they could see what they looked like in my lens. They smiled, giggled, and kept asking for more.
I then realized that seeing a portrait of themselves is a very rare treat. These photographs made them feel beautiful when that is the the least of what they felt. So the remainder of the day, I photographed each woman. I wanted to capture each of them in the way I see her; the same way that God sees her. They are beautiful souls, full of life and hope. It is also through this that I realize what Freeset has done for them. They are no longer like the women I saw standing on the streets, eyes glazed and lost. They now have freedom; a purpose, mother figures to aspire to, and a family of people who love and care for them.
Through photographing Freeset I received more than I gave. I therefore want to share with you a glimpse of what goes on there. However, please be aware than none of these images show faces, at least not faces that are big enough to be recognizable.
Read about Ellie Fun Day’s account.
The last image is by Nate Chan.