Smita Sharma: Powerful photos that honor the lives of overlooked women

Recorded atDecember 01, 2021
EventTEDWomen 2021
Duration (min:sec)10:10
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute130.51 very slow
Readability (FK)61.8 easy
SpeakerSmita Sharma

Official TED page for this talk


In some parts of the world, girls are as likely to be married off or trafficked as they are to be educated. Photojournalist and TED Fellow Smita Sharma thoughtfully depicts overlooked girls and young women, while making sure not to disrupt the lives of her subjects in the process. Her work shows what might otherwise remain hidden -- the first step to changing the story.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:04 This is Lakhi Ram Lohar.
200:08 His job was to spray pesticide at a tea garden in West Bengal, India.
300:15 Lakhi was a single father to his only daughter, Sugi.
400:20 One day in 2007, Sugi went missing.
500:27 Lakhiram went to the local police to file a missing persons report, but he was unable to do so because he was illiterate.
600:38 He didn't have Sugi's birth certificate or any of her photographs.
700:44 So, the police didn't believe him, and did nothing.
800:49 He tried, again and again, but no luck.
900:55 It was as if Sugi never existed.
1000:59 Ten years later, a local nonprofit that fights human trafficking took up her case.
1101:07 They approached Sugi's school and requested proof that she had attended.
1201:13 Here is the certificate, issued in 2017, 10 years after her disappearance.
1301:23 It bothered me that the disappearance of a poor girl doesn't matter to anyone, except her family.
1401:33 I'm a photojournalist, and I report on critical human rights and social issues, not just in my country, India, but across the Global South.
1501:44 I see stories like this everywhere.
1601:48 One of the biggest myths about human trafficking is that it is a developing world problem.
1701:56 But the reality is that human trafficking is a 150-billion-dollar industry, globally.
1802:04 The International Labour Organization's 2016 report reveals that 40.3 million people were trafficked into modern-day slavery, out of which 23 million were women and girls.
1902:20 It's as if girls and women from poor families don't have any value, and their existence or their deaths ...
2002:31 don't matter.
2102:32 Their stories are mostly unseen and unheard.
2202:37 But it's important to see these stories and not look away.
2302:43 Photographs inspire compassion and enhance our understanding of the world.
2402:48 It is a powerful tool for making connections with people.
2502:53 But when we undertake the task of sharing people's lives, we have an added responsibility.
2602:59 Are we representing them with dignity and fairness?
2703:03 Are we telling the whole story or just a part of it?
2803:08 I'm very conscious about stereotypes and how I represent people.
2903:14 Life can be harsh for poor girls from these countries.
3003:19 Boys are given preferential treatment, while girls are expected to do household chores -- cook, clean, fetch water, and take care of their younger siblings.
3103:31 Often, parents tend to marry their daughters early so they would become someone else's responsibility.
3203:40 Basic education is free in many developing countries, but students still need to buy books and uniforms, and when putting even two meals on the table is a struggle, schools can seem like a luxury.
3303:57 So when I went to Nepal a few years ago, to document child marriage for Human Rights Watch, I thought the girls I would meet were forced by their parents to marry.
3404:10 What I saw was a bit different.
3504:12 The girls I met wanted to escape a grim situation and gain some control of their lives.
3604:20 When Tilmaya was 11, her father took her out of school and sent her to Pokhara to work as a domestic maid.
3704:28 When she was 15, she eloped and married a 20-year-old man from her village.
3804:35 This is Sharmila.
3904:36 Sharmila's parents tried to separate her from her boyfriend, so she ran away with him.
4004:42 She was 14, he was 18.
4104:45 When I took this image of her, Sharmila was seven months pregnant.
4204:50 She said she regrets leaving school and marrying early and that she had no knowledge of reproductive health or family planning.
4305:00 So why would girls leave the safety of their families, drop out of school?
4405:08 For nothing?
4505:10 To gain some control of their future.
4605:15 At least, in this case, they were able to choose their own partner.
4705:20 I try to dig deep and show the nuances of the situations, because often, poor women and girls are stripped of their equity and dignity.
4805:31 I would not have taken these photographs if the girls didn't want me to.
4905:38 And I work very discreetly, keeping a low profile, and go to great lengths to avoid attention.
5005:47 I carry minimum gear and this dirty-looking tote bag, which my mother hates.
5105:54 (Laughter)
5205:56 The idea is to blend with the crowd.
5306:00 Even if I dress simply, it's understood I am from the city.
5406:05 So I tell people I'm a researcher into female hygiene.
5506:10 I started carrying sanitary napkins in my purse.
5606:15 Men are so embarrassed, they leave me alone.
5706:19 (Laughter) (Applause)
5806:25 The women offer me tea, and I sit and chat with them for hours, until they get bored of me.
5906:32 That's when my real work begins.
6006:35 The family knows there will be no gossip or any unwelcome scrutiny, as I had already been to 10 different houses.
6106:45 Everyone in the village just assumes I was there to speak about menstruation.
6206:51 I'm very careful that my work does not disrupt the lives of the people I photograph, while I'm there and long after I've left.
6307:02 I do hours of research before diving into a new territory, honoring people's culture, abiding by local laws.
6407:11 Asking permission, seeking informed consent and not leading with my camera has been the foundation of my work.
6507:20 And this has helped me overcome many hostile situations.
6607:27 While working on a project called "Not My Shame," documenting sexual violence in my country, India, I met a young girl I’ll call Beena.
6707:39 Beena was abducted and repeatedly raped by a distant relative.
6807:47 This man was also a very powerful person in the community.
6907:53 While I was sitting with Beena at her house, a huge crowd had gathered outside.
7008:01 Hearing loud voices, I went out, only to be surrounded by a group of hostile men.
7108:08 The men snatched my camera bag, tore off my purse, and started berating me.
7208:16 My first thought was to protect Beena and her family, and also myself.
7308:23 I tried to appear calm, although I was scared.
7408:29 The men said they thought I was there ... to disrupt their lives and spoil the village's reputation.
7508:39 I told them I was there to learn about their lives and culture.
7608:45 By the end of our conversation, an hour later, these same men offered me tea and snacks.
7708:53 Despite this incident, Beena and her family wanted me to share her story with the world.
7809:00 Beena’s story matters, so does Sugi's, and hundreds of women's and girls' like them.
7909:09 Their stories would not have been seen or heard if people like me didn't show them.
8009:17 We need to start valuing them.
8109:20 The first step to any change is acknowledgment and awareness.
8209:28 Otherwise, this cycle of harm will continue.
8309:34 These women and girls exist.
8409:40 And the reason I'm telling you this is because we were lucky enough to be born in very comfortable circumstances.
8509:50 We won the birth lottery.
8609:54 These women have values.
8709:56 They exist.
8809:59 The least we can do is honor them and not look away.
8910:05 Thank you.
9010:07 (Applause)