LA Times Photographer Barbara Davidson Sheds Light on Child Prostitution in India

Inside the tiny room of a Kolkata brothel, Shabnam (L) and her cousin Niya (R) - both in their early twenties, they say - primp for their night of prostitution. Shadnam was beaten and forced into sex trafficking and then ordered by an abusive madam to coerce her cousin to join her. Many young girls in India fall prey to the thieving industry of sex trafficking and face impossible odds to escape it. For many ‘low-caste’ girls and women from nomadic cultures in India, prostitution is commonly passed down from
Inside the tiny room of a Kolkata brothel, Shabnam (L) and her cousin Niya (R) - both in their early twenties, they say - primp for their night of prostitution. Shadnam was beaten and forced into sex trafficking and then ordered by an abusive madam to coerce her cousin to join her. Many young girls in India fall prey to the thieving industry of sex trafficking and face impossible odds to escape it. For many ‘low-caste’ girls and women from nomadic cultures in India, prostitution is commonly passed down from Mother to Daughter and the act of pimping from Father to Son for survival. (Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times)

By Adrienne Andrews

ATHENS, GA (June 5, 2016) – Barbara Davidson is a Los Angeles Times staff photojournalist who spent a self-funded five weeks at the end of 2015 traveling across India to document the lives of child prostitutes in the Indian sex trade. Davidson has won several Pulitzer Prizes for her photojournalism with the Los Angeles Times, including a 2011 Pulitzer for her documentation of victims of gang violence. She was also part of the photography team that won the 2016 Pulitzer for spot news coverage of the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Davidson’s story can be found on the Los Angeles Times Web site.

Q: When did you go to India and why?

A: I traveled to India in October of last year, and I had never been to India before. I had been to all the countries surrounding India. Coincidentally, I had been invited to show my photography at the Indian Photography Festival in Hyderabad. It was their first ever photography festival and they invited me to come and they gave me a wonderful show. I presented my work and I did portfolio reviews and I worked with a lot of the photographers to improve their editing skills while I was there. So, I decided I would go as a soft landing into the country, and while I was there, I was to fascinated by the energy of that country. It's just spectacular. It's ‘on’ all the time. It was mandated by the Los Angeles Times that we use up all of our vacation by the end of that year, so I took all the time I had saved up over the years to go to India. I spent five weeks there.

Q: While you were over there, were you shooting for the Times, or were you shooting for yourself?

A: A country as fantastic as India, you want to spend some time taking pictures. Before I went, I started researching some stories that I thought I would like to photograph. I knew I wouldn't have as much time as a wanted to do as many stories as I wanted because it takes time to build your connections and to make these stories happen. I had seen work on the Indian wrestlers prior to going over there and I thought that I'd really love to do that. Then, I had come across an NGO that was working to try to break inter-generational prostitution with a lot of the young girls in India. I contacted them prior to going there and we discussed some options that might help me tell a story about what's going on in India with these young girls and how they're enslaved in prostitution from insanely young ages. A lot of these girls, their mothers are prostitutes and their children become prostitutes. Often the father green-lights them into the world of prostitution and their brothers often become the pimps. It's incredibly heartbreaking. I really wanted to see that, to see what that journey was like for those young girls. I traveled the sex route that a lot of the girls go on. I traced it to educate myself one what it is, and what it's like for these girls. I was in some of the brothels in Calcutta. I met a lot of the young women and we spoke. It's very dangerous for them to speak to journalists, so I had to work very closely with the NGO, Apne Aap.

I wasn't on assignment for the Times, but I worked on these two stories. One was essentially eye candy. The wrestling story was a story that has been photographed before, and it's not something that I usually photograph. I'm not usually a sports photographer and I also don't shoot color, but I photographed essentially an eye candy piece and I just loved it. It was so nice to be able to photograph just for me and not worry or have any expectations from my editors. It was to replenish my soul. I cover a lot of death and destruction, and I've been doing it for a while now. Sometimes it's nice to take pictures for yourself that make you feel good inside.

But, as a journalist to my core, I naturally gravitate to social issues no matter where I am. That's when I began to do the story on the girls. It was incredibly difficult to see these very young girls in these incredibly difficult situations where often these young girls are raped up to 10 times a day. They live in these tiny little rooms where the only thing in the room is a bed.

I did these stories because, through and through, I'm a photojournalist, so naturally I'm going to want to photograph when I'm going somewhere.

Q: Do you ever find that it's inappropriate to take a picture of something?

A: Lots of times it isn't [appropriate]. When you're putting the people you're photographing in jeopardy when you photograph them, you really have to be observant and you have to understand what's going on around you. You have to be very mindful and you have to be aware of their security. Conversations were fast and furious because I didn't have the time to spend a lot of time with the women in these brothels because the word would spread that there was a western woman in the brothels talking to the prostitutes. So I'd stay in there for a very short amount of time. You engage, then you leave.

Q: How were you able to get into these situations where you were able to engage these women in the first place?

A: I worked with the NGO.

Q: Were there any other western women in this NGO?

A: No. There were no western women. It's an Indian NGO, so there were no western women there. But the woman that runs the NGO, she's a longtime crusader of empowering these young girls and stopping inter-generational prostitution, which is a phenomenally large problem in India. You have to understand, the caste system is still alive and well in principle, but politically and socially they don't believe in the caste system anymore. The rigors of the caste systems are fading. You still see caste life alive and well, and these little girls who are often sold into prostitution come from low castes. They're sort of outcasts in the country. Not too many people are paying attention to them or care about them. They're the lowest of the low in the caste system. They are not protected the way they should be.

Q: Are there any specific images in your story about the girl prostitutes that you think tell the story the most?

A: I took two routes to tell that story. One, the story about the girls physically working in the brothel, I have a long way to go before that story is complete. I'm going to continue to work on that. It's going to take a long time to be able to tell that story honestly and respectfully. I came across a school through this NGO, and I had the opportunity to work freely inside of this school. To me, this story was one of hope, and I don't often get to photograph hopeful stories. It basically showed the other side of the coin, where these young girls are being educated. Education is freedom. If we can educate these young girls and empower these young girls, we can break the cycles of intergenerational prostitution. I spent time in a boarding school where many of these girls were taken away from their family members because they live in the red light districts. This NGO had to plead with the family members and do a lot of negotiations to be able to take these girls into the boarding school to begin their education. It's a start, right? It's a new way of seeing how to break this cycle.

I spent time in these schools and these little girls, they were just lovely and bright and kind, and they looked so much like little western girls of that age. The only difference was that their mothers are prostitutes, and if they don't stay in this school, they'll become prostitutes. It's so heartbreaking. Someone had said to me that the images were really soft, and I said, ‘Does every image have to have blood and guts?’ I think it's more powerful to show a beautiful young girl who looks like any other young girl in the world, but the difference is that she's going to be sold into prostitution if she's not protected. In that, it's very powerful.

Q: How are you going to handle the future of this story?

A: My goal, hopefully, is that I'll get to go back at the end of this year and continue to work on it. I think it's going to be a slow and steady exploration into how this really horrible way of life for these little girls is playing out. I have to be mindful of showing a hopeful aspect of this story like the school, for instance. I want as many people as possible to help them to stay in these schools. I think when dealing with type of subject matter, it's important for people to see that there's a hopeful side to this story. So many people are so desensitized about the violence that plays out in our world that they close their eyes and they look away. Then nothing positive can happen. My goal is to document this issue with some amount of hope that people will actually look at the image and be called to try to empower these little girls. I don't want to turn people off; I want to get people to engage. The only way you can get people to engage is if you photograph things in a way that goes directly to their heart.