Photographer Thomas Kelly’s work on sex workers is worth revisiting as yet another Anti- Trafficking day flies past, says Manjula Narayan
FLIPPING THROUGH the pages of Fallen Angels: Sex Workers of South Asia, a book of essays by 14 writers and pictures by eight photographers put together by photographer Thomas Kelly and edited by John Frederick, gives the reader the sensation of peering down a pit where the detritus of our society flounders. It would be easy to dismiss these people as the ‘other’ but the vulnerability of these faces, some of them as young as eight, prevents the quick fallback on that defence mechanism.
There’s Bangladeshi photographer Shehzad Noorani’s portrait of a prepubescent bonded sex labourer driven mad by her dark life, there’s Kelly’s image of the serious little boy walking resolutely towards a paedophile in a deserted schoolyard in Sri Lanka, and there’s the haunting picture of a boy soliciting in the shadows of a bus terminal in Pakistan’s North West Frontier province. Shot over the 1990s and the early 2000s, the book, which has never been sold in the open market, has the power to shock simply because the phenomenon of human trafficking continues unabated.
Thomas Kelly, who lives and works in South Asia with his anthropologist wife Carroll Dunham, was the only photographer at Sunidhi Chauhan’s Anti-Trafficking Day concert in Kathmandu on September 5 this year.
The 53-year-old, who first came to the region as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1970s, is still entirely committed to the cause of capturing the lives of the marginalised. Though he tries to maintain a socio-anthropological focus to his work, it is clearly driven by a sense of outrage.
“Around 1986, when I was working on a book on trans-Himalayan traders, I travelled with some of those who would go south in search of pastures for their animals during the winter. There was a high incidence of STDs among these men who were bedding women of the Badi tribe,” says Kelly, who slowly gained an insight into the lifestyles of these groups and also came to be accepted by them.
“Since the Badi are basically entertainers, I choreographed an event for them and took it to a few cities in Nepal,” says Kelly. He reveals that very poor Badis might sometimes nudge a daughter towards sex work in the larger interests of the family. His interaction with the tribe led him into their homes along the highways of the far southwest of Nepal and acquainted him with their clients and with the flourishing human trafficking trade with neighbouring India. One thing led to another and soon the photographer decided to work on a book that included similar communities across South Asia, which accounts for the chapters on devdasis in Karnataka, abducted Nepali sex workers in Mumbai and the boys of the bazaars of Peshawar.
“The trafficking of young children, especially, got under my skin and I started to look into that,” says Kelly, who admits to having moments of absolute horror.
Though Kelly maintains an anthropological focus, his work is driven by a sense of outrage
“When I worked in Kolkata, I went into Sonagachi as a Caucasian street photographer and would buy time to speak with the girls. There were occasions when I was locked in, when I was confronted by pimps and I had to talk myself out of a situation, and others when I just had to run,” says Kelly, who took frequent breaks to maintain his composure.
Since Fallen Angels (published by Roli Books) Kelly has worked on a number of other projects – you catch him just as he’s about to leave for the Bhutan border on a “tough assignment” — but his work on human trafficking, which is worth a re-look as yet another Anti-Trafficking Day flies past, continues to be a searing document of the dangers that children in the Indian subcontinent face.