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Pictures of the Depths of the Soul: Prostitution, Poverty, & Progress

Recently, famed photographer Mary Ann Marks died. Ms. Marks spent her career travelling to places most people fear, to photograph people most of us prefer to ignore, or shun, or simply pretend don’t exist.

Some of her most powerful images (see her website:http://www.maryellenmark.com/books/titles/falkland_road/index001_falkrd.html ) were of children in the sex trade. The link above will take you to her axiomatic 1978 collection of photos from prostitutes on Falkland Road in Mumbai, where prostitutes literally live and work in cages. Her work led to the 1981 documentary of the same name, which in turn led to much outrage and clucking of disapproval in the West.

Lest we get comfortable thinking our own country doesn’t have Falkland Roads, Mary Ann went on to photograph street children in Seattle in 1983, titled “Streetwise”. It also led to a documentary on the issue, and also to much indignation by liberals like myself, who tend to get outraged by social injustice. Comparing the poorest and most benighted children of the two cities makes for a fascinating romp through culture, colonialism, and capitalist history, to action.

Out of curiosity, I searched online to see if anything much has changed about either Falkland Road or the street children of Seattle since the books came out. In Mumbai, real estate prices are skyrocketing, making finding a decent place to live almost as difficult and crazy-making as in Manhattan (for a great analysis of the impact of commercial change in the city over the past 20 years, see Mehta’s “Maxiumum City”). Even previously shady areas like the one surrounding the Red Light district are being bought up by newly-rich capitalists for office space, car parks, and apartment towers. Apparently, even the old, poor, and long-shunned Falkland Road is being squeezed by progress. In fact, within a decade it’s likely that the cages prostitutes have occupied since the late 1800’s will be gone. Relocated may be a better word.

Although India has made enormous economic progress in recent years, very little change has happened so far in the struggle to end the deepest sort of child poverty. It is very common to see young children in India’s biggest cities walking about near traffic, barely dressed, sometimes accompanied by either young mothers or older sisters, begging. Unlike here in the U.S., most of these child beggars aren’t scammers. Most are truly homeless, undocumented, and nearly impossible to track or count. India does now have improving maternity hospitals, but large numbers of very poor (and especially rural) women still give birth at home. Without a solid, working infrastructure for registering home births, many of the poorest people in India do not have birth records, which means they’re invisible to the state. Even though it is possible to register births long after the fact, homeless people, prostitutes, and other members of the very bottom register of society don’t always do so.

All of this means that the Indian government really has no idea how many people it has, in spite of tons of work going into counting people. There are simply bigger problems on the governmental agenda- like lowering the astonishing maternal mortality rate, which is finally falling due to large-scale comprehensive efforts in many states. Recently, the Indian congress considered a bill to legalize prostitution, which is already somewhat legal, and make it more of a standardized commercial venture. The bill failed. In India, it is legal to exchange sex for money, but not to act as a pimp, madam, or trafficker, or to own or operate a brothel. Interestingly, it’s specifically forbidden to sell sex within 100 yards of a temple or school.

Looking at Seattle in the years since Mark last photographed homeless kids, many of whom traded sex for money, we can see some change. The city has created multiple shelters and hotlines for kids on the streets to access for help. These folks do heroic work, and doubtless save many kids from a permanent (and short) life on the streets. However, due to money problems (budget cuts and increased need for services), the 800 or so people sleeping in shelters every night only represent a fraction of the whole.

Just like India, the U.S. has a hard time quantifying how many homeless kids it really has. Some homeless kids are undocumented immigrants. Many are not reported missing by parents, so they never get counted as runaways. It’s easy to tell that India’s homeless teen/sexual exploitation problem is vastly larger than that of the U.S. A quick walk around any part of Delhi or Mumbai and then New York or Chicago or Seattle can tell you that much, even though the U.S. is really good at hiding these things, the amount and level of poverty is pretty obvious at face-value.

Even though we don’t have any Falkland Roads in the U.S, with teen prostitutes living in squalid cages on public view, we still have a serious problem. The fact that the richest country on the planet has ANY homeless, unaccompanied children (which is different from homeless families, also a terrible tragedy, but not the same) is an abomination. And, of course, it’s not just a big city problem. When I look at Mark’s photos from Seattle in 1983 (here: http://www.maryellenmark.com/books/titles/streetwise/300E-032-024_stwise_520.html) I see scenes that are familiar from the place where I live now, and every other American city I’ve ever lived in.

Ultimately, to end the horrors of both Falkland Road and the homeless kid problem here, we’re going to have to actually believe in the inherent worth of human life, including female life and gay and transgender life. That’s an awfully lofty and long-term goal, I’m afraid, even though both Hinduism and Christianity call for equal treatment of all humans. I don’t think I’m personally able to make a dent in that one on a global scale. However, when I look at Mark’s photos from 40 years ago, I see something that IS possible. Mary Ann was able to photograph prostitutes and homeless kids because she treated them as the children of god they are. Because she treated them with care, she was able to capture their experiences on film, and thereby remind the world that these people exist and deserve our care.

I’m not much use with a camera, but I can treat people as human, and I can demand that the world remember.