American photographer Zana Briski moved into a Calcutta brothel in 1997, planning to document the lives of prostitutes; instead, she helped their children capture their world on film. The women she met were uncomfortable with her foreign presence, but their kids wanted to know more about her and her camera. She offered to teach them photography, and the ensuing feature-length documentary, Born into Brothels, won several honors, including a 2004 Oscar and a 2004 Sundance Film Festival award. The movie will be released on DVD in September.
Rather than dwell on injustice, poverty, and squalor, the film reveals what can happen when poor, underprivileged kids are trained -- and recognized -- as artists. "When I have a camera in my hands I feel happy. I feel like I am learning something. I can be someone," says fourteen-year-old Suchitra, the oldest child interviewed in the film. Asked if she can imagine a way out of the brothel, she seems surprised by the question. Then she shakes her head no.
Considered the offspring of criminals, the youngsters are barred from the schools that could help them escape the red-light district. Indeed, brothel work is often passed from generation to generation. But the fate of their mothers (and grandmothers) seems far away as the film shows the kids sitting in a circle on the floor describing which photographs they like and why. An eleven-year-old boy notes how the outline of a figure seems to extend into the bordering paper and beyond. It's a sophisticated explanation of line that would seem more at place in a college lecture hall. The movie works because such images of enthusiasm and talent overshadow the difficult situations in which these children live. Briski makes this happen in real life as well. As she gets to know the kids, she abandons her own work to publicize theirs, and uses this publicity to persuade schools to take the risk of admitting these stigmatized children.
The accidental project inspired several deliberate ones, like a school in Calcutta specifically for children born into brothels. Briski also founded Kids with Cameras, an organization that matches award-winning photographers with youths in poverty-stricken communities. Similar projects are set to begin in Egypt, Israel, and Haiti next year.
Attempts to give children access to art education is not new. But for these kids, art makes education possible.
Monya Baker is a freelance writer and former science teacher.