A Slice of the Unknown
Her photography aesthetics are anchored in depicting reality. A wanderlust, for decades Mary Ellen Mark has visited countries and framed different cultures through human emotions. A Magnum photographer, Mary is a contributing photographer to the New Yorker, and her works have been published in noteworthy magazines such as Life, New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.
In the 1970s, she explored the brothel system in the Indian subcontinent. Her provocative yet sensitively portrayed photographs depict the dreams and plight of the women living and working on Falkland Road, who belong to the commercial sex apparatus. In her book titled Falkland Road, Mary describes this alien world as a road, ‘lined with old wooden buildings. On the ground floor there are cage-like structures with girls inside them. Above these cages, the buildings rise three or four stories, and at every window there are more girls – combing their hair, sitting in clusters on the windowsills, beckoning to potential customers. They vary in age from eleven-year-old prostitutes to sixty-five-year-old ex-madams.’ She paints a visual image of the brothel, describing the road to be packed with traffic jams, and customers (aged between 13 to 35 years), walking up and down the street ‘surveying’ the women. She continues, ‘The cage girls do everything to attract the men – they beckon and shout and grab at them; sometimes they pull up their skirts and make obscene gestures.’
Met with insults and having garbage flung at her initially, it was a challenging for Mary to be ‘accepted’ by the women who reined the Falkland Road. However, her persistence paid off when the same women began to get curious about this strange, foreign lady with a camera. ‘My initial friends were the street prostitutes, who were the first to approach me because they are the most free and least inhibited. That is why they are on the streets and not inside a brothel – they are too independent to accept the restrictions imposed by a madam. When they find a customer, they take him into a cage or to a bed in a brothel room rented out by a madam in return for half their fee. Some madams will also allow them to wash and change inside their house. At night these prostitutes sleep out in the street with the beggars.’
Here is a voyeuristic plunge into Mumbai’s brothel through some of Mary’s evocative images…_