Photographer Stephanie Sinclair spent nearly a decade documenting the harmful repercussions of child marriage, from self-immolation to trafficking and rape. In India, home to the highest absolute number of child brides in the world, she witnessed secret wedding ceremonies for girls as young as five years old. Sinclair’s journalistic investigation culminated in her creation of a full-blown campaign to educate and inform to end child marriage around the world.
“Can you imagine not having an education today? You’re completely vulnerable. And with child marriage the girls almost always get pulled out of school,” Sinclair says. “That’s one of the main repercussions. That’s why it’s such a critical issue. Child marriage totally disempowers girls.” But equally important as getting the message out about the negative, she adds, is to highlight the bright spots.
Sinclair recently returned to Rajasthan, India, where change has begun. She met young girls—and boys—who had taken a stand against their own parents and refused to be married, choosing instead to stay in school. In between making images with her regular camera, Sinclair snapped the candid portraits shown here with her mobile phone.
“I pulled out my iPhone camera thinking to myself, How would these girls share their stories if they could do it themselves?” said Sinclair. “My niece is the same age as these girls, and she says everyone her age loves Instagram. So I thought, OK, well then I want to use this way to communicate this story.”
Although Sinclair has reported on child marriage as a professional journalist, her images have taken on another life of advocacy. They have been exhibited and published to influence policymakers and used to pressure governments to change laws or enforce the ones already in place. “I’m still always open to what the men have to say and I think you absolutely have to engage them,” Sinclair acknowledges. “And even though I didn’t come into it this way, I’ll never do a story that child marriage is a positive thing. So in that way I’m not fully objective anymore.”
Sinclair has sometimes been asked about the issue of projecting Western values into the way she photographs in developing countries. But she points out that it’s a two-way street. “I’m never working in a vacuum. No one will help me with a topic like this unless the people from these communities want these messages to get out.”
“I think that most families want their kids to prosper: That is universal. But I think sometimes traditional practices can get in the way of that,” Sinclair says. “Of course, parents can still force them to get married, but in certain communities, kids are standing up for themselves and the families are listening.”
“I want people to see these pictures and be inspired to do work that inspires other people. When I first started this project, I only really dreamed that it would grow to be as big as it is,” said Sinclair. “I don’t think I’ll ever be done with this story. But hopefully my kids will.”
Pamela Chen produced Sinclair’s film Too Young to Wed for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in 2011. Follow Chen on Instagram and Twitter. See more images in Stephanie Sinclair’s story “The Secret World of Child Brides” published in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine. Learn more about her project today and how you can get involved.