Photographer Kalpesh Lathigra on the Indian sex trade

Photograph © Kalpesh Lathigra-All Rights Reserved
As previously noted in The Travel Photographer blog (see below for link), Kalpesh Lathigra is an enormously talented London-based freelance photographer, working for most of the United Kingdom’s newspaper magazines, including the Sunday Times Magazine, and The Independent Magazine. His work ranges from photographic essays of the American Midwest to the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, as well as social issues related photography projects such as The Brides of Krishna, the widows in Vrindavan.

He has recently published a series of photographs titled Transmission on his website which portray women prostitutes (including some hijras, or eunuchs who dress and identify themselves as female) outside of their usual environment in Mumbai, India. Kalpesh chose to photograph his subjects, not in the brothels as many photographers have done, but in his studio.

In an accompanying article in the Independent, Kalpesh says: “They were really surprised that I wanted to take their photographs in the studio and not in a brothel, but I did it because I wanted to isolate the women visually in a direct way. The photographs are for me a way of breaking away from visual clichés – and more importantly, a way of breaking away from the taboos and stigma of HIV, which in India are still very prevalent.”

Viewing these dignified portraits, I’m reminded of Sebastiao Salagado’s “If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture. That is my way of seeing things.”


India’s sex trade exposed

To mark World Aids Day, the portrait photographer Kalpesh Lathigra meets the prostitutes and their clients who are at the heart of the subcontinent’s HIV explosion

Words by Andrew Buncombe
Saturday, 29 November 2008

Anu, a 30-year-old 'hijra' (eunuch) who works as a prostitute in Kamathipura, Mumbai's oldest red-light district, lost her best friend to Aids.

Kalpesh Lathigra

Anu, a 30-year-old ‘hijra’ (eunuch) who works as a prostitute in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s oldest red-light district, lost her best friend to Aids.

On the streets of Kamathipura young women stand ready and available, looking to lure their next customer. They pose, they smile, some wave. They look terribly young, their faces heavy with make-up. Many are dressed in Western clothes, others in traditional saris. In this red light district of Mumbai, they stand on the kerbside in front of grimy shacks containing the beds on which they do their work. There is the hustle and chaos of the traffic, the clogged roads, the constant noise. And there is terrible sadness too.

“I was tricked here. I was in love with a man and I came here with him. But when I got here, he sold me,” says Simla, a 42-year-old prostitute, originally from Nepal. She has two children and she saves what little she earns to send them to school, desperate that they do not follow her into the sex industry. “I was fooled into this. I will not allow my children to do it.”

Sex costs little on the frenetic streets of India’s business capital, where people come and go all the time. New arrivals wash up from India’s poor rural hinterland, desperate for work, any sort of work. Men – who are used to a repressed, conservative culture – come and stand and stare. There is a near-constant flow. A young woman might be able to charge a customer 100 rupees (£1.30) a time, but an older woman might only get 30 rupees (40 pence). When a woman demands that a customer use a condom, the price is usually lowered as a result.

These women and their customers are at the forefront of India’s Aids crisis. The country has up to three million people living with HIV, the third-highest total in the world. Experts say that the most important danger in the spread of HIV comes from the relatively high numbers of men who go to sex workers, who do not use condoms and whose jobs involve them travelling. As a result, both sex workers and India’s legions of horn-blaring truck drivers are among the groups most persistently targeted by health workers and educators trying to push the message of safe sex.

“You can educate children in schools about safe sex but the people who need to be targeted the most are the sex workers themselves,” says Penny Richards, the communications director for the Avahan India AIDS Initiative, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “The other group in need of education are men who have sex with men.”

The sex workers of Mumbai have long attracted the interest of photographers. In the early 1980s, the distinguished American photographer Mary Ellen Mark spent weeks on the city’s Falkland Road, one of the poorest red-light districts. Initially suspicious of her, the sex workers gradually came to trust the American and invited her into their homes. Her now-famous and unsettling collection of photographs is titled after the street on which the women work.

By contrast, when he set about working on the collection of images published on these pages, the photographer (and longstanding contributor to The Independent Magazine) Kalpesh Lathigra wanted to portray the women (who included some hijras, or eunuchs who dress and identify themselves as female) outside of their usual environment. Working with a friend, he arranged to hire a studio in Mumbai in which to photograph them. As it transpired, the studio was only a short distance from the area in which the women worked. But despite the geographical proximity, it was a world apart. The results were dignified and powerful.

“They were really surprised that I wanted to take their photographs in the studio and not in a brothel,” Lathigra recalls, “but I did it because I wanted to isolate the women visually in a direct way. The photographs are for me a way of breaking away from visual clichés – and more importantly, a way of breaking away from the taboos and stigma of HIV, which in India are still very prevalent.”

“Whenever photographers go to the red-light areas, they are always taking their pictures in the street. It is not easy. And you’ll get tourists coming and taking pictures as well. So when I told them I wanted to go the studio they were surprised, but they were also really positive. I think they understood what I was trying to do.”

As well known as it is for its sex workers, Mumbai is also famed for its terrible traffic, its almost constant gridlock and the persistent building of new roads and flyovers. Amid this twisting jungle of fast-setting concrete and blinding headlights, it was not difficult for Lathigra to discover an impromptu truck stop where drivers gathered for rest and relaxation.

There is an aura of slight menace to some of the images he took there of the truck drivers but there is also a sense of weariness about these men of the road. Standing in front of their brightly painted rigs – which are themselves the constant menace of India’s roads – the men also look a long way from home. A long way from their families, from their wives.

There are new challenges for the changing India as campaigners seek to make the world’s largest democracy (with a population of more than 1.1bn) wake up to the threat of Aids. Some experts, for example, believe that the rise and rise of the booming information-technology industry – and, in particular, of the call centres that service clients on the other side of the world – that represents the emerging threat to watch.

Warning of the menace of so-called “call-centre romeos”, men who make use of the cramped working conditions and night-shift hours to snare young women, Dr Suniti Solomon says the profile of those who carry the HIV virus is changing. Dr Solomon, who is from Chennai and who detected India’s first-ever case of Aids in 1986, explains: “Men and women are entering the workplace for the first time. Often they are coming from outside the urban areas. They are getting a good salary; it’s a nice atmosphere. They are away from their parents and they have more freedom.”

It soon becomes clear that a key issue in encouraging safe sex in India is that it remains a remarkably conservative society. For a culture that once created the Kama Sutra and the erotic carvings at Khajuraho, it’s ironic that many subjects remain taboo – among them, men having sex with men, drug abuse and the issue of easy access to condoms. “It’s as if it is not possible to talk about it,” says Penny Richards of the Gates Foundation.

Yet on the streets of Kamathipura, campaigners have had success in educating the women of the red-light area about their circumstances and what they can do to protect themselves. In addition to education about safer sex, a number of schemes have been set up to help the economic circumstances of the women.

A cooperative bank, established by the charity Population Services International, which allows women to deposit small amounts of money is one such example. Saving even a few rupees here and there means the women can remove an element of desperation from their daily lives. “It means,” says Indra, a sex worker from the southern state of Karnataka, “that I can say, ‘No’, if a customer does not want to use a condom.”

For more information, see


Summer HHS! Winner: Kalpesh Lathigra

Richard Toledo, Sundancer, Oglala by Summer HS winner Kalpesh Lathigra

Kalpesh Lathigra
Currently residing in London, U.K.


Work Statement
Alienated and forgotten communities are the subjects of much of my photographic practice. My photographs are a document to give a voice to those who have none. In my ” Lost in the Wilderness” series, I photograph the historical landscapes and portraits of the Lakota Sioux Native Americans on Pine Ridge Reservation, a quiet reflection of a community trying to survive in another America. The influences of Mitch Epstein, Mark Rothko, Robert Frank and Alec Soth prevail.

Kalpesh Lathigra born in London, England , 1971, to Indian immigrants from east Africa. I studied at a PgDiploma in Photojournalism at London College of Printing. After leaving college I was awarded The Independent newspaper photography scholarship, I spent 5 years shooting for national newspapers in UK, in 2000, awarded World Press Photo prize and switched to magazines and started to pursue long term projects. In 2004/2005 was awarded W.Eugene Smith Fellowship and Churchill Fellowship for Brides of Krishna project. The project was exhibited as part of Another Asia, Noorderlict and Angkor Wat Photofestival, 2005/2006.
My interest in photography was a chance look at Cartier Bresson’s book in India whilst studying a Law degree, which I subsequently quit to pursue photography.

2 comments on “Photographer Kalpesh Lathigra on the Indian sex trade

  1. ajay joshi
    December 3, 2008

    hi this was the most touching piece of work after a long time,

  2. karan anand
    December 9, 2008

    you took on a bold subject….great portraits…!!

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This entry was posted on December 1, 2008 by in Photographer - Kalpesh Lathigra and tagged .
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