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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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 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.