She has shot photographs of boy soldiers fighting in Congo’s long-standing civil war. She has also covered sexual violence in South Africa. But British photojournalist Hazel Thompson says that all her previous experiences still didn’t prepare her for the violence she encountered in Kamathipura — Mumbai’s sex district. "The more time you spend there, the more you realise how much danger there is," she says.
For two months, starting May 2010, Thompson peeped through concealed trap doors, hid on roofs at dusk and eventually won the trust of some sex workers and their minders enough to take photographs that are part of a new coffee table book called Cage.
It retraces the journeys of three sex workers from their hometowns in India and Nepal to the brutal streets of Kamathipura. Bombay Teen Challenge, an NGO that has been working to rescue and rehabilitate children of sex workers as part of its Stop Slavery Campaign, has published the book.
The title stands for the small wooden enclosures that fresh recruits are crammed into and tortured, often for up to three years, until they no longer have the will to resist. It is also a metaphor for Kamathipura itself, which Thompson likens to "an open prison". "Children and women are regularly exposed to violence," she says. "It’s gangland, where your every move is being watched by lots of people."
But how did a camera-wielding foreigner manage to evade those eyes? "The more they saw me, the more they kind of forgot the camera was there," she says. Accompanied by members of Mumbai Teen Challenge, Thompson managed to get fleeting glances into the highly cloistered world of sex workers.
The photographs that resulted from her furtive visits to the squalid living and working quarters of the sex workers are arresting and discomfiting, even for blasé Mumbaikars. Most have been shot from a vantage point, offering a bird’s eye view of the geographical spread of the area.
Whether it’s a picture of a customer shielding his face, as he exits a brothel or one of Golden Maya, the most powerful madam in Kamathipura, bedecked in gold ornaments and sporting gold fillings in her teeth. The photos are a reminder of a slice of Mumbai that is easy to forget. Does Mumbai have a blind spot towards Kamathipura? “I think every country has a blind spot towards trafficking,” says Thompson, who most recently covered the same topic in South Africa. “It’s the same story all over the world.”