As a part of our effort to combat Human Trafficking, we are trying to put a spotlight on individuals who contributed in identifying, supporting and counselling and seeking justice for victims of trafficking and continues to challenge the impunity of traffickers. There are several people across India who continue to contribute their time and energy to combat crime against humanity, which include public officers, law enforcement authority, civil society, child protection officials, journalists, lawyers, medical professionals, and mental health experts. The Article 23 dialogue, gives a platform to all the people working at the grassroot level to connect with the youth. Today we have with us, Journalist Smita Sharma, who has been covering issues regarding Human Trafficking across South Asia and in many countries across the world
In order to cover human trafficking issues and to have the strength to go into field, you need to have that sensitivity, to cover such issues. Especially, when survivors, who have just been rescued and being rehabilitated back to their homes, the journalists come and without any sensitivity start taking their pictures. As a result of which Supreme Court has given a clear guidelines on ensuring protection of identity of the victim’s sexual abuse and human trafficking. These orders must have made reporting tough for you, but still you have in your own way supported the voices of such victims. So, my first question to you would be, how do you as a journalist, look into the matter of human trafficking and do reporting in the field?
Smita Sharma: I first came across human trafficking, particularly around 6 years age when I was already working on my project on sexual violence and rape in India. I met a girl who was trafficked from school. At that point of time I started thinking, we never faced anything like that. What was the difference between my childhood and their childhood? When I started investigating, what I found was that mostly the girls from rural areas are targeted and particularly areas in India where there is poverty, where there is desperation. There are lot of human migration that happen in those areas, so there are families where the father is absent. Sometimes both the parents are not there and the grandparents are there to take care of the children. So, the parenting role is completely absent. In some families the parents are there, but these are very large families. There are 8 children in the family and there are perhaps only 2 rooms for the children to put up. So, when people are raised under such circumstances, they are looking for an outlet and the traffickers are very smart. They know how to hook. I use the word hook, because it is used in fishing. It is almost like they are trying to fish for a target and over here the target are these vulnerable girls from the vulnerable communities. So, that is the reason why I started working on this. The question you asked is a very challenging one because as photojournalist we have to be very careful of laws and guidelines. There are so many things you have to take care of when you are working on this. Not revealing the identity, taking photographs in such a manner that no location could be revealed, even you cannot show a house. What if someone identifies the girl through that photograph of the house. So, when you are writing and when you are visualizing, these are two different things. Also, you cannot show the photo in black or white because that would not show the personality of the girl. And for me it is very important to show, who she is, what led her to such condition and how she is coping up? Because for me resilience is very important because for me resilience is very important. I have met so many girls from different families and different parts of the country, who are extremely resilient despite of what has happened to them. They do not give up hope and I think I have a lot to learn from them. Having said that, the challenges that we face while photographing, is that we use lighting in a very different way. Creatively I use a lot of fabric to create patterns in between the camera and the subject, I try multi-layer the subject so it looks creative. Yet, it is enough to hide the identity of the girl.
When you went to several districts of Bengal, Jharkhand to cover the issues of Human Trafficking, you met survivors. Everybody brings out the pain of the survivor through their story and you yourself have visited those areas and families. You through your photographs, have not only brought out the pain of the survivors but also their suffering, trauma but also the ways in which the girls are coping with the situation after their rehabilitation. Somehow, your picture also showcases the positivity and energy of the families. How do you do that? I think our viewers, mostly young students, activists, lawyers, they might be eager to understand the way in which you create that image?
Smita Sharma: The element is patience and time. I don’t work like a daily news photographer who go to one situation, spend two hours and come out and ask them uncomfortable questions because first of all it is unethical to ask questions which can be traumatic and can re-victimize them. So I take time. I spend a lot of time with the family. For example: I did this project on the tea gardens, I spend a considerable amount of time there. I spend a lot of time on my research before going there. I make a lot of phone calls. I speak to people and organizations who are actively involved in anti-human trafficking. I try to get in touch with the police, the professors, doctors, anybody who is relevant to that area and to that issue. So two years ago, I worked on a project in that region, and I met many girls and missing families, who did not know where their daughters were. Even now they are untraceable and I never went and ask them how do you feel. Obviously, that is a wrong question to ask anyone because they just lost their daughter. So I generally go and talk to them as a normal human being. And I take time to build my relationship with them. And slowly they open up with me and they tell me things. I let them tell me instead of me asking them. Of course, I make it very clear why I am there. I ask the person about their own situation, I ask about what they like. I just generally listen and talk to them and that is what is shown in the photos because that is not forced.
It is because of photo journalists like you, frontline workers and unsung heroes like you, the national fight to uphold and implement Article 23 of Constitution of India continues. I really congratulate you on this because it is really important to bring out the issues of understanding the survivors family, understanding their trauma, understanding their positive energy and to bring those out in the photographs, which people will see and understand that it is not only about the violence but it is also about what is next after the violence. That is the importance of your photographs and every time your story comes. It is also very important because when you are reaching out in the interiors, you talk about doers, you talked about tea garden areas, people don’t understand your language. They are tribal people. How do you connect with those people in the families because they don’t know you. Suddenly you start shooting with the big cameras making them realise that it is for the story for which you have come there. How do you connect with such families?
Smita Sharma: First of all I want to clarify, that when I work on the sensitive stories, I do not carry a lot of gear, which means that I do not carry huge cameras and I do not carry a huge camera bag. I carry very little equipment, even the lights that I carry are very small portable lights. I just carry a regular bag because I do not want to come across as a photographer or a journalist. I want to look just as one of them. About the language, I have also worked in other countries. I have worked in Kenya, Guatemala and other different countries too. Generally, we work with somebody who is a local. That person can be someone from an organisation , can be a school teacher, can be a local lawyer, anyone who has agreed to work with me. But someone who knows the region, who knows the people and with whom I have developed a certain kind of understanding that they are going to come and help me. That person also travels with me and helps me in the story telling because when there is a language barrier, that person would translate for me. So this is how I work.
I also wanted to ask you a very important question. Being a woman, do you face challenge? Especially in India, females journalists are not always seen, especially in the villages. Since, you are going in the interiors. How do you make them realise that women can also be a part of this scenario of bringing stories as a journalist.
Smita Sharma: Being a woman definitely has a lot of advantages. There are some disadvantages also, which we will talk about later but before we should talk about the positive things. Before woman with a camera was not taken seriously in our country. At least in the rural areas, in the suburbs which is good, because when people don’t take you seriously, they don’t take you as a threat. Because some of the areas where I worked were highly dangerous. It was not just the survivors or missing girls, but it is also about the perpetrators. Because sometimes they are out of jail. Sometimes the perpetrators were never arrested. Sometimes, you know there are group of people who are involved in a crime, but you are still living there because there is no evidence. So I have to work with those limitations and I have to think about how to protect myself when I am out there. So I think keeping a low profile is very important. You do not want to come across as a hot-shot journalist. You just want to look like one of them. I have been asked, I have been chased by a mob, I have been threatened. It has happened to me many times in many places. It has even happened to me outside India. I think the best thing is to be very calm and to make them feel like I am just like you. Maybe I talk different language and maybe I look different but I am just another human being but I am just here. So I try to work in that manner.
These are the things which I think the young journalists or the young woman journalists, must realise the importance of your experience because you have gone deep into the interiors, made stories on gender-based violence, human trafficking, prostitution. You have also covered witch hunting. I would also like to know more about your work especially in Jharkhand, where you went for a week and you not only did your photo shoot but also educated young girls in schools, to learn photography. How did you feel when you gave camera to the young girls and told them the importance of a picture/ camera and how do you connect with those girls?
Smita Sharma: I was approached by my friend, who is an American photographer and who also work for the non-profit and he was very interested to come to India and teach photography. He asked if I would want to partner with him, so I said sure and then I suggested that we go to Jharkhand, which Shakti Vahini organized on our behalf. I think, just the near action of giving the cameras to the girls who have never touched the camera before in their lives, they have not even touched a smart phone in their lives. They have seen mobile phones but they have never touched smart phones. So giving them a camera and telling them that I want to see how you see your life. I want you to show your world through your eyes. And then just teaching them the basics of story-telling, was an incredible experience. The girls were amazingly talented. Their work was really nice. They told their stories in their way. Also the work that I did in Jharkhand in that time, was similar. It was about domestic servitude trafficking. It was about tribal girls who were taken from their homes, with the promise of jobs and who were never paid and were kept in the placement agencies and kind of tramped them. These were the children who were tramped, because they were not given any single money. It goes to the agency. I hope to work some more in that area.
We are very grateful to have you in article 23 debate. There are so many youngsters who want to get into journalism with the opinion that it is a glamorous job for a woman. What is the message you want to give to the young girls and what are the protocols that you follow personally for the cases concerning human trafficking?
Smita Sharma: It is a very important question that you have asked. I also get a lot of messages on social media accounts and emails from both men and women asking to work with me. I think what you said is very true. There is a glamour attached to our profession because you see the end result and the end result is “This is such a fantastic story” and that you get so much attention. But you do not get attention, it is the issue that gets the attention. But you do not know the backstory. And as I said, just getting access to one family takes months. Getting access to police, the bureaucracy, it is impossible sometimes, to build that relationship and also going to these very different regions. One have to understand that when you go to these regions, there is no electricity. They do not have a space where you can charge your mobile phone. So you have to go prepared. There are places where you do not find toilets, so you have to have a very strong bladder or you have use mother nature or you have to knock on peoples door. So there are different things you have to face. Sometimes, it has happened to me that for 14-15 hours I did not eat because I never got the change to eat because the work was so intense I did not think about food. What I see in today’s generation is that they are in a hurry, I feel. I am generalizing here because there are exceptions for sure. What I see is that everybody is in a hurry for instant gratification. They already have plan of what they want to do after a year. They have a list of the things they want to do. It is okay, one can always aim for something, but you have to give it time. You have to go to that level of hard work. You have to earn that story and in order to do that, you have to work hard. You have to do your research. You have to be there. So it is a mix of many things.
It is definitely a mix of many things. What is your message to the people? When Article 23 will be telecast, what message do you want to give to people ? Because doing stories on human trafficking is very dangerous. What is your message to the next generation?
Smita Sharma: First thing is that to work ethically. Do not be in a rush Do not cook up stories, do not manufacture something which is not there. Don’t tell people to do a certain thing in a certain way because you are in a hurry to get something. I have known some photographers who have staged things, like can you walk this way, can you look in that direction also people ask uncomfortable questions so the women starts crying. You cannot do that because that is unethical. My only advice is that don’t work unethically. Abide by the laws of the land. Every country has different laws when it comes to human rights and gender rights. Do your research and do not break any protocol. Work sensitively, work from your heart and something good will definitely happen. It will take time but it will surely happen. Also don’t give up. Things don’t come easily so don’t give up easily. Have patience.
So don’t give up is the message given by Smita Sharma, award winning photo journalist, who has done a lot of hard work. She has covered for the New York Times, National Geographic and many International Journals. Every time she does some kind of photo-shoot, it is big. The message for the youth is to keep working as Mrs. Smita rightly said that you have to take your time. You have to understand your issues first and then you have to hit the ground. Before we wind up, one last question I would like to ask you is what is the difference between a story and a photoshoot?
Smita Sharma: I think they are the same. At least the work that I do, sometimes when you are writing a story, you are explaining situation, you are explaining everything and sometime when you are showing it, there is one photograph that tells the story. Of course, it comes with a caption because all the work that I do comes with a caption with information because otherwise it makes no sense. If it is a landscape with a tree, you look at it thinking it is a wonderful photograph. But when you have to show that this is where the body of a 10 year old girl was found, with her head chopped off and she was gang raped then this becomes something else. So it is the context and the visual that comes together. I think both photographs and texts, both tells a story. It is just a different format.
Lastly, how young photo journalists students, who are presently in their college across the country, how can they join you in your effort in joining your story of violence against women and children?
Smita Sharma: Violence against women is not new, it is not unheard of. It happens everywhere. Sometimes right in front of us, we don’t see it. So somebody does not need to go thousand miles away to get something. Sometimes it is just next door. Sometimes it could be the person who comes to your house to cook everyday may be she is having an issue at home. So I think it is possible to work on stories at your own backyard. There are so many issues related to violence against women. For example right now with COVID situation where people are under lockdown, there is a huge increase in domestic violence. There is a huge increase in sexual abuse inside homes. So sometimes you don’t have to look away, you have to look inside. If anyone is interested to work with me, they can apply for an internship and we will be happy to consider that.
Interns and Journalism Students can reach out to you on your Instagram and on your Facebook.
Thank you for joining us in our Article 23 dialogue. We are very thankful that you have given your time to the Article 23 dialogue.
Team Article 23 is Supported by Surbhi Shivpuri -Law Officer Shakti Vahini (Editing) and Shubhashini Kant – Intern (Video Editing)