Powerful Photos Capture the Lives of South India’s Transgender Community

Photographer Jennifer Carlos’s intimate portraits capture trans women between rites of passage, sex work, begging, and hopes for a better life. 

31 March 2022, 10:40am

Jennifer Carlos, a 34-year-old Indian-origin photographer based in Paris, France, was visiting her family in the southern Indian city of Pondicherry last September, when she found herself drawn to the city’s transgender community. Every time she’d step out, she’d come across one of them, either begging on the streets or blessing passersby with the hope of getting some loose change. 

“Give me a little money, and you will be blessed!”: Savitha, Sangeena and Sathana don’t go unnoticed as they call out to the passers-by in the busy streets of Pondicherry. When they pass them, some men look away, others come closer to slip a note in their hands.

“Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the beauty and courage of the people of this community, who manage to exist in one of the most patriarchal and conservative societies of the world,” Carlos told VICE. Though Carlos had only planned to stay in India for a month, her fleeting interactions with the community struck a chord in her, and she decided instead to immerse herself in their community for six months. “I wanted to see how they lived their daily lives in this patriarchal society.” 

The result is Daughters of God, a stunning photo project that chronicles the daily struggles, complexities and resilient spirit of the Thirunangais, the term used to refer to trans women in the state of Tamil Nadu. 

“The Thirunangais, who were wrongly assigned the masculine gender at birth, are also called ‘Hijras’ in the northern parts of the country,” said Carlos. “This term is in reference to Bahuchara Mata, the goddess of fertility and chastity, of whom they are the descendants, according to the Hindu tradition.”

One month after having escaped her family home, Marthula dares to show her face on the beach of Ariyankuppam, in the southern outskirts of Pondicherry. Here, she is dressed as Ardhanarishvara, an androgynous divinity that unites Shiva (on the right side) and Parvati (on the left side) within one single body. This image symbolises the ambivalence of the divine nature: both feminine and masculine, neither male nor female, at the origin of all things, transcending gender distinctions.

For her project, Carlos worked along with a translator named Usha, as well as researchers and a lawyer who could help her verify information. As a woman of Indian-origin, she was also able to understand Tamil, which she used to communicate with the community in the absence of the translator. Through her research, Carlos realised that while the Hijra community in northern India is often treated with respect and even invited to birthdays and weddings to shower blessings, the Thirunangais remained marginalised in every way. “None of the women in the community I lived with have gone to weddings or birth ceremonies, but instead give blessings in the streets in exchange for a few rupees,” she said. “I got the feeling that they are more feared than respected. They are all qualified, but cannot find a job because no one wants to offer them an opportunity.”

To truly immerse herself into the community, Carlos closely followed several trans women. Eight of them, named Savitha, Sangeena, Sathana, Geetha, Rossi, Marthula, Srija and Pappima, played a major role in her project. 

Aged 27, Rossi looks for clients along the Semmandalam Kurinjipadi road

“When I started to follow the community, I noticed the incredible and combative journey that these women had,” she said. “Most of them were raped and abused by their parents or teachers, who tried to ‘put them back on their right path.’ So, they left their families in order to find freedom and embrace their identity.”

Rejected by their families, mutilated, battered, raped, and excluded from employment, the eight women that Carlos shadowed were forced to survive through begging and sex work. However, along the way, they also found solidarity through a community that united them. “This community holds a paradoxical position in the south of India. They are celebrated by the Hindu religion, which ascribes them powers of blessing, healing, and fertility, while still being rejected and denigrated by society,” she said. The more time she spent within the community, the closer she got to these women, establishing a bond that made them candidly open up about their struggles.

“The Indian society believes that a person must marry and have children, and this is considered the only possible avenue of self-fulfillment. The society violently rejects people who don’t follow this pattern. As a result, they are marginalised throughout their lives, experience rejection and significant trauma, but also become incredibly resilient. They are on an ongoing quest for their identity, and have hope for a better life.”

One of the most intense aspects of this photo project for Carlos was capturing the intimate moments between these women in their sex work and their clients. “This really allowed these women to drop the mask and open up without any filter,” she said. 

Srija receives a client who comes to see her in her room “two to three times a month”.

But perhaps the most powerful moments from Carlos’s six-month stint was a tender moment she shared with Savitha, with whom she had forged a friendship. This happened when she captured her on her bed. 

Savitha dreams of changing her life and ceasing to be a sex worker. “My greatest wish is for people to stop being afraid of transgender persons. After all, I was a man and I am now a woman, so I can understand both, I have feelings too. I wish we would stop being seen as mentally ill or compared to animals just be- cause our gender doesn’t correspond to the norm here. I want people to understand that we are persons who aspire to live their lives and be independent just like everyone else.”

“Savitha spends most of her time on the streets, begging during the day and working as a [sex worker] at night,” she said. “Being out on the streets is a daily struggle. But in that moment, when we were alone in her room, I noticed how peaceful she looked. She was completely de-stressed, as if returning to her refuge. She welcomed me into her room, closed the door, stripped and posed for me, almost like she was a living painting. It was a magical moment where it felt like time stood still.”

Carlos’s aim as a photographer was always to capture her subjects in close proximity. But by immersing herself into this community, she zooms in on a raw reality that she hopes can spark discussions on what it’s like to live on the fringes of society. 


“I want my project to be able to give a voice and a face to this community, make us question our own identity construction, and stop passing judgment on gender norms.”

Check out these powerful photos that capture the raw and gritty reality of South India’s transgender community.

Before her vaginoplasty, Geeta, 35, endured a forced marriage, and had a wife and a son. In this photo, she finally shows up dressed as a woman during the Nirvan ritual, an important ritual in the life of a Thirunangai. Hindu Thirunangais say that when people are born with a feminine soul in a masculine body, the goddess Bahuchara visits them in their dreams and asks them to emasculate themselves and become a Thirunangai. If they don’t, they will keep being born this way for their next 7 lives.

Savitha invited people from her neighbourhood to commemorate the tenth anniversary of her surgery at her place, in Ariyankuppam, in the southern outskirts of Pondicherry.

Savitha, 30 years old, never managed to find work despite her degree as a medical laboratory technician. “Even if you don’t work, you’re pretty, so if you satisfy my needs, that will be enough”, the boss of a laboratory said to her during an interview. She has been begging every day in the streets of Pondicherry since she was 18. She makes “around 300 to 500 rupees a day”.

At night, Savitha blesses a man along the beach for 15 rupees (around 20 cents). In the Hindu tradition, transgender people are the descendants of Bahuchara Mata, the goddess of fertility.

Savitha's transidentity certificate. Dated 2016, it formalises the transition of Mr. Balamurugan to Savitha Balamurugan, a transgender woman. It allows her to get an ID card and a voter registration card. In the spring of 2014, the Indian Supreme Court officially recognised the existence of a third gender, neither masculine now feminine, in aid of a transgender population estimated between half a million and a million people. “But apart from the possibility of changing my name administratively, I don’t have any rights, I can’t work or be respected as a human being”, adds Savitha.

Savitha's mother threw her out when she was 11 years old, but asked her to come back when she was 19, after learning that she had transitioned and had become a sex worker.

The private hospital Mahatma Gandhi in Pondicherry comprises a clinic specialised in gender confirming surgery. “In my opinion, it is not plastic surgery, but an essential act for people who suffer so much discrimination to have been identified as having a defect at birth,” said Saravanakumar, a surgeon who performs gender reassignment surgeries in the area. “This is not understandable for ordinary mortals and for medical teams alike. The number of doctors who treat transgender people is far too low compared to the demand. But we know that the quality of life does not depend on surgery but it is above all social and political.”

Aged 62, Pappima gets out of breath when she speaks. Aids wreaked havoc amongst the community. Pappima learnt about her condition 12 years ago, after having worked as a sex worker almost all her life. Now, she's found a job as a house caretaker in Ariyankuppam. “I started sex work during my adolescence, around 15. Before that, my father sexually assaulted me for years. You shouldn’t be a Thirunangai, it’s too hard. In my next life, I want to be like everyone else, a doctor for example, to help people.”

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transgender, sex worker, Photo, south india, transgender day of visibility, marginalised

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