Hazel Thompson: Giving the voiceless a voice

by Raisa Ostapenko on 12 February 2015


Heat; frenzied streets swarming with tourists, stray dogs, policemen, cockroaches, gang members, rats; humidity; mouldy walls and dark, winding corridors; brothels; a faint aroma of chai and spices amid the stench of rot and raw sewage; cages: welcome to Kamathipura – Mumbai’s red light district. Its description may sound clichéd – a setting right out of a poignant Hollywood blockbuster on India’s poorest neighbourhoods – but, sadly, Kamathipura is very real.

Hazel Thompson

For over 12 years, British photojournalist Hazel Thompson worked clandestinely to gather photographic evidence of the violence and the devastation endured by the young women working there as prostitutes. “The red light district is not place of pleasure. It is a place of pain,” she said, speaking at the second session of the Women of Achievement lecture series being held this term at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

Divided into lanes, Kamathipura is composed of brothels, each of which can have up to 20,000 young women. Over a period of five years, each girl generates an average income of £50,000. Sometimes, 8-10 girls can be working at the same premises simultaneously. HIV runs rampant. It is believed that 50% of the female population is infected, though some estimates are as high as 75%. Some women refuse to provide services unless their clients agree to use a condom; others are beaten into submission and forced to have unprotected sex.

You might be wondering why any young woman would choose to be thus disparaged, to have her dignity thus debased. These women are not here by choice. Ms. Thompson interviewed hundreds of women to learn their stories and an overwhelming majority of them had been trafficked. Some are deceived by acquaintances and driven to Mumbai by false promises of domestic employment; others are openly sold by family members. Once they arrive, the young girls are raped. “Rape them to break them,” is the local motto, Ms. Thompson said. Bound by debt, the girls are held in cages, sometimes for years, until they grow older and are forced into sexual slavery. Those already released onto the streets are watched incessantly. There is nowhere to run and no one to trust. The local administration is plagued by corruption: some brothels are owned by politicians; police receive bribes and turn a blind eye to the atrocities. The “flesh trade” is all about money and it is in the administration’s interest to maintain it.Hazel Thompson with Professor Todd

Prostitution is not a new phenomenon in India. In their 1899 book The Queens Daughter’s in India, missionaries Katharine Bushnell and Elizabeth Andrew presented the results of their investigation into tales of beautiful women who “comforted” British soldiers and local Indian men in Mumbai. Bushnell and Andrew provided vivid descriptions of the degrading and brutal experiences of prostitutes working in brothels, whose very existence was denied by the Indian government. “It is 120 years later and nothing has changed,” said Ms. Thompson.

Hazel Thompson 2Ms. Thompson first came to India in 2002 after seeing a photograph of a nine-month-old baby girl called Glory. Born to a prostitute and a street labourer, the innocent child had been sold at Kamathipura for £150 by her poverty-stricken father after her mother’s death. Fortunately, Glory was immediately rescued by a UK charity called Jubilee Campaign. Passionate about human rights and social issues, Ms. Thompson decided to go to India to see the situation for herself.

During her visits, the photojournalist would be smuggled into the red light district by aid workers, a good number of whom were former prostitutes and pimps themselves. They had grown tired of the system and wanted desperately to stop it. Ms. Thompson hid her camera under a scarf and posed as a charity worker. They needed to be careful and assess the risk of exposure on a daily basis. Sometimes, Ms. Thompson recalls, she feared that she would be captured and imprisoned herself.

There are a great number of myths and misunderstandings about sex trafficking, said Ms. Thompson, who has partaken in undercover investigations in six countries in recent years. "Everyone thinks that trafficking is cross-border. What I am really seeing [much of] now is domestic trafficking." Domestic trafficking is not exclusive to countries like India, whose society is marked by immense economic stratification. (In 2014, the country was ranked 6th in the world in terms of number of billionaires, though 30.7% of its children were undernourished.) According to Ms. Thompson's recent investigations, domestic trafficking occurs even in economically-prosperous countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Sweden.

Born into a middle-class family, Ms. Thompson had a traditional life planned out for her. Instead of going to university, however, she rebelled and decided to become a photographer. She calls the profession her calling. “I am being paid to do what I love, and that is really special … but I have really had to fight to follow my gut and my heart ... When something captures your heart, you have got to keep going.” Since the start of her career, Ms. Thompson has been on assignment to 57 countries, including Qatar, Bahran, Vietnam, Sudan, and Congo, and has been contracted by TheHazel Thompson and gallery New York Times and The Guardian.

She sees herself as a storyteller, telling those stories that are hard to tell or those that have been neglected. When she first learned about sex trafficking in Mumbai's red light district, Ms. Thompson wanted desperately to understand and document everything, especially because a photograph still counts as evidence in a court of law. "[You have to] expose darkness to allow light in. These young women do not have a voice. My camera can be a voice for them."

Charities, such as Jubilee Campaign, set up rescue missions for minors who have been brought into the brothels. Adult women, explained Ms. Thompson, cannot be rescued in this manner. They have to make the choice to leave the red light district and come to rehabilitation centres themselves. Fortunately, many of the young women who have been rescued have since experienced powerful transformations. From a condition of hopelessness, they have allowed themselves to become dreamers.

Hazel Thompson has also published an ebook on this subject.

Raisa Ostapenko (2014)
M Phil (Modern European History)

Photo credits: Anastasia Kozlovtseva

Filmography: Ryd Cook