Despite homilies to the contrary, one does judge a book by its cover. Fallen Angels, an
expensively-produced photo-book on the sex workers of South Asia, has a warm-toned
seductive image of a Nepali sex worker printed in high gloss.
The womans body is offered, both to the gaze of the reader and her client. He, of course, is invisible, just a disembodied hand unbuttoning her red blouse...
This is only the first of the many contradictions which mar this attempt to explore the complex terrain of commercial sexual exploitation of children and adults in South Asia.
Titillating cover firmly in place, publishers Roli Books declare that the book will not be put on the market: We want it to reach only those who can help and protect these children and adults already living dangerously. The book, however, can be seen prominently displayed at Bahrisons, Khan Market, in Delhi.
Further, the authors who claim to challenge the stereotypes of whore,
victim and fallen woman, name the large number of diverse
individualswomen, children, boys, transvestitesfallen angels.
Thankfully, this self-righteousness does not obscure the strength, pragmatism and humour
with which sex workers in the subcontinent survive histories of trauma and abuse.
Many of the photographs and personal narratives do represent these lives and struggles with sympathy and sensitivity. But a large number of photos have been shot from concealed positions, without the awareness/agreement of the protagonists. This is especially true of the images of children. This sort of photographic practice is often justified as being in the service of exposing social evil. Just as the preface pre-empts possible criticism in the name of raising awareness.
Perhaps one should keep faith, and hope that the wealthy urban consumer of coffee-table books will turn out to be an advocate for the human rights of sex workers.
Perhaps the desire to see that red blouse fully unbuttoned will not arise in that man loitering outside Bahris.
Perhaps socially responsible voyeurism has found new sources of funding in the Bill Gates Foundation.