She saw young women in cages. Men young and old watched as the women beckoned and lifted their skirts, then decided which one to pick as if they were choosing a brand of soap in the supermarket.
That’s the sight that confronted Mary Ellen Mark in 1968 when she visited Falkland Street, a bustling thoroughfare in Mumbai. It took ten years of repeat visits before she was able to gain the trust of the prostitutes and begin taking pictures.
Mark, who passed away on Monday, was a champion of people on the edge of society. Of the 18 books and various photo essays she published, Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, is one worth remembering.
The work was lauded internationally for bringing light to the injustices of young women marketed by pimps and madams and often beaten and vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.
Commenting on the work six years after its 1981 publication, The New York Times Magazine called it “intimate but not bawdy, sad but not damning.”
Through Mark’s lens, street prostitution and dim brothels popped in vibrant hues of blue and green. The dingy rooms and drawn curtains gave a sense of place. The expressions on the women in them — somber, helpless and debilitated — brought that place to life.
Sex trafficking in Kamathipura — the red-light district in which Falkland Road is located — dates back to 18th century British colonial rule. In the years after Mark’s work, anti-trafficking organizations like Prerana — established in 1986 — offered night shelters to sex workers so they’d have a safe place for themselves and their children. The nonprofit also runs a children’s home to provide long-term residential care and protection to those at risk of being trafficked.
There have been calls for government intervention in a district where police officers and officials have historically turned a blind eye for money. But it seems a booming real estate market — that threatens to swallow brothels and churn out offices and flats — might be the sword by which the industry finally dies. Already, the surge in market prices has forced out brothel owners and decreased the number of sex-workers by a third.
The world has changed in other ways since her project. In the foreword to a 2005 reprint of Falkland Road work, Mark noted the growing awareness of the media’s power and wrote: “I often wonder how the women of Falkland Road would react to me if I approached them now. Would they be afraid to be labeled or sensationalized? Would they ask me for money? They never did before.”
Andrew Boryga is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Bloomberg and other publications.