The first shot is a naked light bulb, swarmed by bugs seeking warmth. This is followed by equally impressionistic images: a child’s face, women on the street, a hallway crowded with customers, a woman undressing, a bustling, dirty street lit for night. All introduce Born into Brothels, a look into the lives of children in Sonagachi, North Calcutta’s red light district. “The men who enter our building are not so good,” says Kochi. “They are drunk. They come inside and shout and swear.” Kochi stands by a window looking out; behind her, laundry flaps and an orange sky offers beauty, but also, the imminent night, when the men enter.
Initiated as a documentary on Indian prostitutes, the Oscar-nominated Born into Brothels soon became something else. As London-born, New York-based photojournalist Zana Briski tells it, she was moved by the children’s plight. “It’s almost impossible to photograph in the red light district,” observes Briski in voiceover. “Everyone is terrified of the camera, they’re frightened of being found out. Everything’s illegal.” And so, she describes this area as a world within a world, where rules are intricate and compulsory, where violence and abuse are commonplace. Frustrated by what looked to be the children’s lot—more of the same—Briski changed her plan, giving eight of the children cameras so that they might document and make some artistic sense of their own lives.
As they explore new ways to see their surroundings and to frame their experiences, the kids also understand and mostly consent to the limits assumed for them: options are impossible even to imagine. While their mothers work, they also do what they can to earn money, scrubbing dishes and floors, running errands. Tapasi says, “One has to accept life as being sad and painful, that’s all.” The camera watches her from above, in a constrictive stairwell, as she fills buckets with water, a woman in her neighborhood hovering nearby, with face out of frame. “You worthless little cunt,” says the woman. “Go tell your mother to get fucked.” The moment is at once brutal and banal, the child’s body slight as she persists in her task. Briski’s camera remains at the foot of the stairway, as she carries her bucket up to her apartment.
Such scenes set up Briski and co-director Ross Kauffman’s project, at least as they see it. As the film’s primary narrator, Briski describes her feeling of “connection” to the women. Though she admits there’s no “rational” reason for her feeling, Briski moved into the district in 1998, then spent some two years teaching the kids to use their cameras. These efforts mark a turn away from observation of the prostitutes’ lives, into intervention, as she hopes to make available other options for the kids, particularly the girls, who are expected to follow in their mothers’ footsteps: one, reports Briski, has been married off at age 11, others are being pushed into prostitution.
Teaching the kids to use their cameras to reveal their milieu and express themselves, “Zana Auntie” is patient and enthusiastic. “Take your time to look,” she tells them via a translator, “Make sure everything in the whole square looks good.” Briski sits among the children, modeling how to frame and shoot, encouraging their choices and pointing out mistakes with good humor. “It’s very good,” she notes, that one child has taken two rolls of film, but less good that he shot at night without a flash—the photos are unreadable. Each child has a particular interest and rudimentary style (Gour says, “I take pictures to show how people in this city live, I want to put across the behavior of men”), and the film showcases them with their names on screen to introduce their often excellent, and always remarkable, work. These photographs, posed and candid, colorful and dark, expansive and tightly framed, each tell particular stories. Together, they pile excitedly into cars to visit the zoo, where they take photos of elephants, monkeys, and peacocks in cages, or to the beach, where they shoot men on horseback and also one another, splashing and running along the shore, damp-haired and smiling.
Avijit shows a particular talent, and Briski works for months to get him a passport so he might represent the group at World Press Photo Foundation event in Amsterdam (his chances are threatened when his mother is burned to death, apparently by her pimp, and the boy becomes depressed: “There is nothing called ‘hope’ in my future”). His photos of scrawny dogs, trolley tracks, and children on the street reveal a remarkable talent and passion, says that he likes to draw and take photos, to “express what’s on my mind, to put my thoughts into colors.” His grandmother shows off the medals he has won for his art, and Briski praises the “details” and “different angles” in his images. At the same time, he narrates other details, his mother’s abandonment, his father’s hash addiction, and his own sense of responsibility: “I try to love him a little,” he says, while also imagining an escape, another life.
As Briski notes, “They have absolutely no opportunity without education,” and so she decides to get them into classes, a task even more formidable than she first envisions. This because their parents are “all criminals” and the kids themselves need to take tests to show they are HIV-negative. “I’m not a social worker, “I’m not even a teacher, really,” she concedes. But she can’t accept doing nothing (Kochi wonders how an education might change her options: “I wonder what I could become,” she muses). Briski perseveres, knowing that some children will inevitably be lost, to financial demands, their parents’ fears, and administrative ignorance. And indeed, Puja and Suchitra are eventually pulled out of school to “join the line.”
To raise money for more education and more art, Briski arranges for the photos to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2001 and reprinted in Amnesty International’s 2003 calendar and a book also called Born into Brothels (and has since gone on to found Kids with Cameras, a nonprofit organization that continues her work in other places). At a gallery show in Calcutta, the kids become stars, asked by reporters to explain their work. While Born into Brothels sometimes seems to be making the kids’ seeming “otherness” into art, their words and their work keep focus. Poised, knowing, and incredibly energetic, they are repeatedly forced to make difficult and very adult decisions.