Reviewed by Seth Scott
“Human trafficking stares us right in the face, but it is so perverse, and we are so discomforted by the hard truths, that we simply ignore it and block it from our consciousness.”
In 2018, National Geographic commissioned award-winning Delhi-based photojournalist Smita Sharma to do a project called “Stolen Lives,” documenting sex trafficking in her country. We Cry in Silence is a collaboration with the FotoEvidence Foundation to produce a book with its sales going to fund zine versions to be distributed at trafficking hotspots. A travelling photography exhibit will also raise awareness about sex trafficking in the region.
Sex trafficking of minors in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh is an underreported issue. Sharma worked with NGOs, local law enforcement, and victims and their families to document harrowing stories of women who were promised food, love, marriage, and happiness only to be sold to militiamen in Kashmir or smuggled across borders to end up in brothels.
Sharma speaks candidly about the difficulty of undertaking a sensitive project like this one: “Laws are rightly extremely strict about shielding the identity of individuals persecuted through human trafficking, particularly if they are underage. If they get a chance, these individuals deserve all the support they can get to re-establish themselves in society without the fear of social stigma or shame.”
“This makes the job of visually depicting their stories extremely difficult. As a photojournalist, I work with expressions, and often the constraints of depicting them hinders the ability to effectively present a narrative. But as the story developed, so did I as a photographer.”
Sharma’s seven chapters show us Indian police stations, train stations, and brothels, offering portraits that hold power while hiding the identity of the subject. The book’s 50 images reveal convicted sex traffickers and their victims, lifting the veil on the industry and how it functions while exposing family members and married couples involved in the smuggling.
Here, shadows are just as important as light. One image inside a police station shows crime statistics over the years, including CAW—Crimes Against Women. In one of the seven chapters called “Missing,” Sharma shows police-archived single passport-style photos of women who were never seen again—women like Ranjana.
“Sixteen-year-old Ranjana has been missing from the Chalsa Tea Garden Estate, West Bengal since 2009. She was trafficked by her uncle while travelling with him for a family wedding. Ranjana’s parents are illiterate and never filed a police report until 2017, following Ranjana’s younger sister’s persistent persuasion.”
Harrowing stories like Ranjana’s are all too common when desperation and greed leverage poverty for profit. Women are sold for as little as $300—less than the value of a cow, but enough to send their own children to school.
Photojournalism is a male-dominated industry, and stories like this one may not see the light of day if not for women in the field. Exposing the true horrors of the sex trafficking industry and its inner workings requires a female perspective, a trusted respectful intimacy between subjects and photographer—a sisterhood.
We Cry in Silence is a visual testament to gender violence, reminding us how much work still needs to be done and how much the victims need us to act.
Sharma reports on critical human rights, gender, social justice, and environmental issues both in her own community and in the Global South for various publications including TIME.
Most recently, she received the 2021 second prize Fetisov Journalism Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, the Amnesty International Media Award for Photojournalism, and the Las Fotos Advocacy Award. In addition to the 2017 Indian of The Year Award, Sharma has also received the Exceptional Women of Excellence Award and the One World Media UK Popular Features Award.
Smita Sharma is a graduate of the International Center of Photography and has a postgraduate diploma in Journalism from the University of Pune. She is a TED Speaker, TED fellow, and an IWMF reporting fellow as well as a member of The National Geographic Photo Society, Women Photograph, and Diversify Photo communities.