Cyclones, floods and monsoons. These cyclical natural disasters had originally drawn photographer Luca Catalano Gonzaga to Bangladesh, where he quickly discovered another native pattern of devastation: sex for sale.
At $1.50 USD per client and a high worker-to-client ratio, he saw that competition at the Bani Shanta brothel has no boundaries.
“The violence, anger and rage of the girls, fighting to grab a man as if he was an object” is a sight Gonzaga will never forget. “I had to pay a prostitute to protect me from the assault of the other women,” he said.
“It is a sad profession that tradition dictates is passed on from mother to daughter,” Gonzaga said, recounting his experience on the sandbar island that hosts the brothel. This is the only profession they know and the women he talked to feel they have no alternative, he said, adding that their education is nonexistent.
Situated along the Ganges, one of the largest river systems in the world, the island is home to many prostitutes, who wait for sailors like sirens, luring them in from the sea.
Gonzaga described the girls’ behavior as ladylike in appearance but wolf-like in manner when men arrive on the shores.
“Girls grab men and push them around – shouting and forcing them to get into their corral.” But the men are not innocent either; they play their own game of prodding and degradingly inspect the women’s bodies.
The living conditions: daunting. The lack of basic hygiene: dour, though the women clean up well for their suitors in a kaleidoscope of colors, jewels and gems. Their faces: caked with lustrous powders, their eyes: majestic blues and fire-tip yellows, their costumes: exotic and alluring. They appear as the geisha of Bangladesh. Yet their feet, in plastic rain boots to shuffle around the muddy, squalid streets, are physical reminders of their poor conditions.
Yet according to Gonzaga and other reports, girls who have yet to reach their teen years are working alongside their mothers and sisters in these call-houses. UNICEF estimated that as many as 10,000 underage women earned a living in 2004 by selling their bodies in Bangladesh, with some estimates as high as 29,000.
Known for his work in developing countries photographing local cultures, human rights issues and climate change, Gonzaga is used to the unusual and the depressing. Yet as he disembarked from the ferry onto Bani Shanta, Gonzaga was completely unprepared for the “hunt” that was about to take place.
It is a game of exploitation, difficult to distinguish who is taking advantage of whom.
“The role of victim and perpetrator switches many times,” Gonzaga said. He saw the men exploit the women’s bodies, just as the shordani (female owner of the brothel) exploits the men for more money, just as the girls exploit the men as if they were “goods.”
A 15-minute appointment with a girl generally costs anywhere from 100 to 300 taka, or about $2-$4, depending on the age and beauty of the prostitute, Gonzaga said.
Not much to wrestle over, yet with a fierce competition between the women for a meager amount of money, the girls must use all the prowess they possess, or as Gonzaga deemed it, “abusive” behavior toward one another. “It was as if they were acting out publicly the violence they had to endure sexually.”
If a prostitute gets pregnant, often the father of the child will come live with her. However, according to Gonzaga, he does not contribute financially; he lives off the woman’s earnings.
Stepping outside the role as witness and photographer, Gonzaga felt trapped. He got to leave at the end of his trip; the prostitutes did not.
“How is the next generation going to break this awful cycle? How can we help? Is this the only destiny for these children?”