Miguel Candela, a Spanish photographer, has traveled around the world photographing some of its most impoverished places. In his exhibition Brothels: Living in Darkness, he traveled to the red-light district of Faridpur in Bangladesh and photographed the sex workers, both very young and the old, in a brothel. In his photographs, we see a concrete compound in which fluorescent lights illuminate the rooms and corridors, creating an aura of what Candela calls “the ideal background for a horror blockbuster.” Here, about fifty sex workers are forced to live and prostitute themselves, serving seven to twelve clients a day for as little as one to three US dollars. The women and girls in this brothel do not choose this type of life; they are raised into it. They all want to live a better life but they do not know how to live any other way.
One of the girls working in the brothel is Bristi. She is only fifteen years old. Bristi comes from a long line of women born and raised in the sex trade. When asked about leaving, she replied, “If I could go to another place, marry someone who would know nothing about my past, maybe I could escape this shame that I feel.”
Other girls, like Asha, are brought into the sex trade as mere children. At the age of nine, Asha was beaten and raped by a customer. Most customers of the brothel prefer very young girls, those who have just undergone puberty. As a result, the older women cake their faces with makeup and seem more available to get enough “business” to make ends meet. When a woman becomes too old to serve, she will often become a madam, or “housekeeper” of the brothel. These women are born in the brothel, and they die in the brothel. In this horrible cycle, society views these women as no more than common property, bought and sold at the will of the pimp and madam in charge.
The environment these women and girls live in is dangerous and often deadly. It is not uncommon for clients, pimps, or madams to abuse the women working in the brothels. The girls quickly realize that resistance is futile because they are beaten, raped, and drugged into submission. Clients often demand service without condoms, and the women have no choice but to comply. Consequently, there are undesired pregnancies, and nearly seventy percent of the women and girls contract sexually transmitted diseases.
Many members of the Bengali society see these women as worse than garbage. In 2010, a radical Islamic group burned the brothel to the ground, harming many and forcing those who were able to relocate and prostitute elsewhere.
What I found most disturbing about these images was the despair and hopelessness in these women and girls’ eyes. The ineffable abuse and degradation these women go through every day is unfathomable to the majority of people living in the more developed world. Seeing the blurred figures of men, women, and children in the background of Candela’s photographs living in this type of environment abhors me. They are being raised in a culture that not only condones prostitution and female submission, but encourages it. Seeing these photographs of completely defeated women giving their bodies up to the highest bidder because they know no other way of making money makes me angry. I am not angry at the women, but at the society that has forced them into an impossible situation. I am angry at myself for having so many opportunities and knowing that these women have none.
Although I try to describe and explain the situations that too many women and girls like these are in through an objective lens, I feel far from indifferent about the issues of sex trafficking and forced prostitution. It pains me to see these images, to read these women’s testimonies, and to hear the latest statistics about human trafficking. To me, they are not just pictures on a website, words on a page, or numbers being recited. These are real people, with real hopes, and real dreams that will never come true unless people in better conditions and better circumstances do something about it. These women will continue to be prostituted, abused, raped, and degraded unless we help them, unless we raise awareness about their condition, and unless we give them a voice.
by Philip Richardson