India - Photo Exhibit of trafficking survivors - Pain To Power
Trafficked women redraw their portraits with a new identity through the lens of photographer Achinto Bhadra. Hemlata Aithani captures the metamorphosis.
From brothels to mainstream, it has been a journey of transformation captured through the lens — the journey of 126 young women rescued from the red light areas in Kolkata and rehabilitated. Capturing their metamorphosis from ‘pain to power’, as they portrayed themselves in characters they could identify with, was acclaimed photographer Achinto Bhadra. At an exhibition organised at Alliance Francaise in New Delhi, he displayed 50 out of the 126 portraits he had created.
While the striking compositions, colour, costumes, make-up, expressions and captions made each portrait captivating, the exhibition for the most part was about the successful reintegration of the young subjects into society; their newly-gained independence; their determination to start life afresh; and how they see themselves and what they identify with.
The photographs were part of a project that began five years ago by the Kolkata-based NGO, Sanlaap, with support from Terre Des Hommes Foundation, Switzerland. “Sanlaap has been working for the past 21 years against the trafficking of girls and women... working with girls rescued from brothels.... and children of commercial sex workers and helping them to come back to main society,” says Indrani Sinha, director, Sanlaap.
The subjects captured in the images — all survivors of trafficking, rape and abandonment — were, at the time of the shoot, residents of Sanlaap homes and between the ages of 8 and 25. At the shelter homes, these young women were cared for, counselled, and empowered with life-saving skills in preparation for a life of dignity ahead.
However, it was not easy for them to be part of the photographic project, the aim of which was to throw light on trafficking, prostitution, and vulnerability as a result of domestic violence, early marriages, poverty and exploitative relatives.
Eventually, the photographs became powerful manifestations of the young women’s dreams, how they saw themselves and what they wanted to become post rehabilitation. Summing up the images, a poster stated: ‘Achinto’s portraits reused trafficking survivors imaginative visions of themselves as human, animalistic and divine beings of power, love and revenge and freedom.’
Prior to the project, the young women feared revealing their identity. Masks and make-up came to the rescue, while the counselling sessions instilled confidence. Harleen Walia at Sanlaap ‘guided the girls through a healing journey of psychological transformation’ and helped them to come out with their own stories.
The process saw these women sharing their past experiences, how they reached brothels and how it affected them, without dwelling on what happened to them in those brothels. It also helped them to decide what they wanted to be in future.
For the portraits, the young women had to think of a character they wished to be portrayed as. Says Reena, 23, who now works as a youth motivator with an NGO in Kolkata, “It took me a day to decide but when I saw a fish swimming across a pond, I could immediately identify with it... how it swims across despite all the troubles. I too would like to fight all odds in my life and start living once again.”
Aloka, 28, portrayed herself as a bright yellow flower so that she could spread fragrance “not only in my life but in that of others as well.” She now runs a grocery shop along with her husband, whom she married last year.
Shikha, 20, now works as a life-skills trainer with an NGO, training girls on how to improve their communication skills. For the shoot, she had adopted the character of the protesting girl... “who never gives up and continuously fights for herself and others.”
Taking part in the project had a cathartic effect on the victims. “Talking about my experiences during counselling and expressing myself in front of the camera, as a wasp, was heart-wrenching. It made my heart heavy and filled my eyes with tears but in the end it made me feel lighter as if I was done with my past,” recalled Saraswati, now a self-defence trainer and a third-year college student.
The first-hand personal accounts were powerful and gave an understanding into the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of trafficking and how best to tackle it, admitted Indrani, who adds, “In the last 21 years we have been learning from these women. What we are doing today is because what we have learnt from these women — from their experiences, how they were trafficked and what they went through and how it can be avoided,” she added.
Lack of education and skills, poverty, domestic violence and dysfunctional families are some of the reasons why girls leave their homes in search of odd jobs, to become maids or in the hope of living a better life with those who assure them marriage. By the time they are rescued from commercial exploitation, their confidence and self-esteem are shattered, their future is bleak and they are in need of help that is sensitive and caring.
Unfortunately, most care-givers at shelters don’t know how to treat a victim with dignity, observes Indrani. Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, Director of Haq: Centre for Child Rights, agrees with this assessment. She speaks of the need for greater efforts to sensitise the community on how to treat survivors of trafficking with dignity.
Gathered on the lawns of the exhibition venue, were some of the young women who proved that with care and sensitive support it is possible to move on.
Most of these 126 young women are earning their own livelihood and four of them took time out to travel from Kolkata for the exhibition, which has travelled to many countries, including the UK, US, Spain France, Germany, Cambodia and Nepal. Their angst, palpable in ‘Another Me’ portraits, is now buried under the smiles on their lips and dreams in their eyes. It’s quite ‘another them’.