Published on March 3, 2014 | by Caroline Schmitt


It’s not about me: Forced prostitution in India

London based photo–journalist Hazel Thompson talks to Caroline Schmitt about the 11-year process of creating a multimedia documentary exposing forced prostitution in Mumbai, India.

Thompson’s ebook Taken documents the experiences of women and children who are trapped in the sex trafficking and slavery industry in India. [Hazel Thompson]

Guddi is 22 years old. In another life, she might be worrying about what is happening after graduation, or about the minor fight that she just had with her mother. In this life though, Guddi has been enslaved for 11 years. She was trafficked by a female family friend at the age of 11 and has since been held in Kamathipura, Mumbai. The brothels on and around 14th Lane form one of the largest red light districts in Asia.

Thompson went to India for the first time in 2002 where she photographed children born into sex slavery. She then got in touch with the charity Jubilee Campaign there and started to research the story of the “women and children whose voices aren’t being heard”.

Little girls are held in cages for three to five years until they are “broken,” and then are allowed to go out and look for customers themselves. This is where she met and slowly started to bond with Guddi.

Speaking about when she had to said goodbye to Guddi after she had finished gathering material for her multimedia book Taken, Thompson said: “I held her and we both wept and I begged her to leave and seek help in a rescue home, but all she said was: ‘I am trapped on all sides didi [sister]. My life was taken when they bought me here.’”


“It’s not just a matter of rescuing a girl out of a red light district. You can do a raid, but these girls have been on the street for decades; it’s also in their mentality.

“All Guddi has known is slavery. You can’t force her to get out, and we often tend to take a simple black and white approach, but it sometimes takes charities years until they can get a girl out,” Thompson explained.

The charity Walk Free estimates that there are 30 million people living in modern–day slavery. The first Global Slavery Index was launched in October 2013 and has determined that there are between 4,200 and 4,600 slaves in the UK. Those figures are often “second-hand and [the] picture they create is frequently inaccurate, and often leads to severely problematic, unintended consequences,” as Neil Howard wrote in The Guardian. Although the numbers still speak for themselves, individual cases that receive an extraordinary amount of media coverage can send more impactful signals to both the public and policy makers.

In late October 2013, three women were rescued from an “ordinary house” in South London, after suffering 30 years of domestic slavery in Lambeth. The human trafficking unit of the Metropolitan Police commented that it had “never seen anything of this magnitude before”. This high-profile case highlights that while the sex trade in Asia may appear more tangible, domestic slavery is carried out in every country on different levels, however “advanced and democratic” these countries may see themselves.

‘It happens here’

In Britain, the It Happens Here report from the Centre for Social Justice, an independent Westminster think tank, combined a number of case studies with policy recommendations. It has contributed towards a Modern Slavery Act which would increase the sentence for traffickers from 14 years to life long.

The Home Office published a Draft Modern Slavery Bill two months after the Lambeth case was brought into the public eye. The bill is currently being considered by a Select Committee with members from both the Commons and the Lords before a white paper is presented to parliament, probably in the Spring. In addition, ministers have announced that there will an anti-slavery team led by the Border Agency at London Heathrow Airport from April 1 to identify victims of human trafficking as early as possible.

One of Hazel Thompson’s motives has also been to raise awareness among politicians to encourage taking preventive educational measures:

“The more people with influence talk about it, the more it changes. Everyone says that prostitution is the oldest trade, but surely that doesn’t make trafficking right. Change comes through debate. The joy of the media is that it can be a tool for keeping governments and organisations accountable.”

“I have seen and heard things that I wish were easy to forget, or simply didn’t exist.” Hazel Thompson

Before Thompson started devoting more than a decade of work to the project, she worked on photo documentary projects across the globe including in the Philippines and Vietnam. “When I started learning about the cages, I had been to over 40 countries in my life, but this story felt like I was called to do it; it became engrained in my heart. Over time I realised I have found my voice as a photographer through it.”

The stories she spent years of time and energy documenting still have an impact on her, although she has been back in London for a few months now. “It’s very dark and it affects you mentally and physically, I still suffer from insomnia.” In the introduction of Taken, she wrote: “I have seen and heard things that I wish were easy to forget, or simply didn’t exist.”

Secretly filming violent fights between girls and their customers and having used condoms thrown at where she was hiding, she still insists that “there are girls kept in cages [who] haven’t seen the daylight for many years. So that puts my ‘suffering’ into perspective. I think you realise how incredible humans are and the strength of their spirit.”

Visual anthropology

Being aware that photo–journalism that addresses social problems often uses strong visuals and expressions to get a certain message across, she said: “I try to show the reality, it’s not just the extremes. It’s the kids washing themselves, the rubbish, but of course, within that there are the extremes because it is such a hostile environment. It’s much more what I call a visual anthropology.”

“[The main challenge of creating it was] where do I begin? It was 12 years of my life. That was the hardest thing, to make it digestible for a normal person.”

The finished digital book, available through iBooks, is a piece of photojournalistic technology featuring interactive maps, audio recordings and other multimedia elements. “So I had video, I had stills, text and interactivity, but how do you edit that? It’s not like doing a flat piece or a slide show. We wanted the film to enhance the stills. Otherwise you just get bored visually.

“I also wanted to go way beyond the current affairs, photo–journalism and justice community. Because of the way I designed it, it’s a piece of technology. I wanted it to reach a viewership that I wouldn’t normally reach. I think that’s the challenge now with art.”

London community

Calling this story her lifetime project, she admits that the production process of merging 80 hours of film footage and all the other material into a compact book was challenging, especially from a financial viewpoint. She says: “There were times where I wanted to give up because I was struggling to pay bills.”

“There were times where I wanted to give up because I was struggling to pay bills.” Hazel Thompson

But during those periods she could rely on friends from the London photo community who encouraged and pushed her. “One thing I love about the London community is that everyone looks after each other. It’s a very lonely role otherwise. It’s not survival of the fittest, but the survival of community.”

Thinking back to her beginnings, she advises graduates to think beyond “the story” when starting off: “They all think it’s in the story, everyone does that. But don’t ask what you should do, ask what you’re passionate about and then that’s the story you do. Stories come and go, trafficking was not on the agenda 12 years ago, now it is. Stick to who you are.”

Taken costs £6.49 from iBooks, or

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