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A portrait of a woman, her face obscured by shadow.

Smita Sharma gives a voice to the invisible

The Amnesty International award recipient explains how being a woman has affected her work as a photojournalist

M was 16 years old when she was drugged and taken to Delhi, India, where she was sold to a brothel. She was rescued during a police raid. From the series Stolen Lives 

 

During a medical checkup in Delhi while she was pregnant, the photojournalist Smita Sharma was asked by a doctor what she did for a living. Sharma described her work as a visual storyteller and mentioned she was midway through a story for National Geographic on the survivors of sex trafficking.

The doctor’s response: “Cancel it. Ask them to give you an assignment taking pictures of flowers.”

“I found it humiliating,” says Sharma, whose work focuses on human rights, gender and social issues in the global south. “I know she said it for my protection, but it just motivated me to carry on.”

Sharma won an Amnesty Media Award for Photojournalism in April 2021 for her powerful reportage in Stolen Lives, documenting cross-border child sex trafficking between India and Bangladesh. Her work frequently focuses on vulnerable women and girls in Asia and Africa – survivors of rape or sexual enslavement, young mothers excluded from education, commercial surrogates.

“I think my gender has only been an advantage when it comes to my reporting,” she says – in some instances it has helped her build a connection, in others it has deflected attention. “I’ve been threatened while working in the field – incidents where people did not want me there and asked me to leave – but even then, it helped that they don’t take you too seriously.”

Whatever your gender, this is challenging work emotionally. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me,” says Sharma. “Sometimes the camera helps. It almost acts as a shield between you and what you’re photographing. But there are times when I have come back to the car and cried or felt like I had no energy to carry on.”

Her subjects don’t have the ability to walk away from their situation, she says, and this is what compels her to continue bringing their under-reported stories to light.

Nurses stand by a patient on hospital bed
CREDIT: Smita Sharma

A 20-year-old patient is treated in the burns ward of the Kabir Chaura hospital in Varanasi. She had been attacked by three men who tried to rape her before dousing her in kerosene and burning her. She died a week later. From the series Not My Shame

 

A group of women paint their nails, Bangladesh
CREDIT: Smita Sharma

Girls paint their nails at a shelter in West Bengal, India. They share similar traumatic experiences having been trafficked and sold into sexual slavery. From the series Stolen Lives

 

A young mother holds her baby
CREDIT: A young girl collects milk from cow

Tilmaya Majhi, 17, with her husband Ganesh, 22, and their daughter Purnima. Tilmaya eloped and married Ganesh when she was 15 to avoid returning to Pokhara, where she had been sent to work at age 11. From the series Our Time to Sing and Play 

 

All images by Smita Sharma smitasharma.com

Read more about Smita Sharma’s photojournalism in the September/October 2021 issue of the RPS Journal.

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