"I didnt want to go to India," says photographer Zana Briski, co-director with former HBO editor Ross Kauffman of the Oscar-shortlisted documentary Born Into Brothels. "It was the last place on Earth I wanted to go. I dont like crowds of people. Chaos. Everything. But I couldnt do anything else. There wasnt a choice. The alternative would have been death."
Briski, 37 and a World Press Photo winner, was working for the Baltimore Sun back in the mid-90s. "The Sun would have me shoot some woman who just finished a quilt. Or somebodys cow," she says. "I was driving all the time. It was awful. And meanwhile, there were gang wars going on down the block. But they didnt want to know about that."
On January 1, 1995, she quit. On January 2, she was on a plane to India. A personal odyssey, as it were, though as things turned out, she spent the next seven years on the subcontinent taking photographs, befriending the children of prostitutes, moving into a Calcutta whorehouse. And making a movie.
The result is as much a product of Briskis spirituality as it was of her tenacity. It is also at the risk of writing Hallmark copy a portrait of hope: The dignity and wisdom with which Briski and Kauffman portray the beautiful children in their film can actually make the viewer believe that, at the end of each teeming, squalid street of Calcuttas red-light district, there is something other than a dank dead end.
For Briski, the plight of Calcuttas children is inexorably connected to her bond with Sister Ammachi, Indias "hugging saint," thought by some to be an incarnation of the Divine Mother of Hinduism. Ammachi, whose world tours attract thousands of devotees, had donated land for a school for the children of the red-light district land Briski planned to visit on that 1995 New Years pilgrimage.
The daughter of an English father descended from Polish Jews and an Iraqi-Jewish mother who was exiled to Israel at age 14, then made her way to London, Briski was educated at Cambridge, as a biology major until she refused to experiment on animals. She switched to theology.
As in comparative religion? "No, that would have been interesting," she says. "It was standard-issue Anglicanism."
Which, obviously, didnt take. "I dont like to talk about religion too much, because I dont want to be categorized. I want to be able to communicate and reach people and talk about having your heart open, which is more simple than saying, Oh, I have an Indian guru. Which is not the truth anyway. Sister Ammachi is not my guru, though it was an undeniable connection to her that led me to do this work."
The work has included the founding of Kids With Cameras, a nonprofit organization ("I bought Nonprofits for Dummies," Briski laughs) devoted to expanding the project into more of the worlds slums (poor kids in Cairo, Jerusalem and Haiti have been added to the roster of works in progress) and selling prints of the photographs.
That Briski and Kauffman once romantic partners, now collaborators of another sort have continued to advance the childrens interests certainly sets them apart from documentarians who parachute into a situation and then vanish in a vapor trail. But "Zana didnt go in there trying to save kids," says Kauffman. "She actually went in there by accident and was just sort of reacting to what she saw. Weve been in credit-card debt, over $100,000 combined, for the last five years. Its not like were rich Americans trying to save the world."
"Sonagachi [Calcuttas red-light district] was almost too dangerous," Briski says. "And theyre very smart," she adds. "Even if you go with a hidden camera, they know. People are literally terrified of the camera. Many of the women are lying, going back and forth between their villages and the city, saying theyre working in a factory. And theres all this other illegal stuff going on."
"I was too ignorant for trepidation," Kauffman says.
"I just wanted to make sure I did the job right."
The filmmakers, who got their initial funding from the Jerome Foundation and the Sundance Institutes documentary fund, sold the film early on to HBO, where it will air in the fall. But money has never been the issue. Nor is it now.
"I guess, for me," Briski said, "its a choice of whether to live in the world or retreat from it. If I live in it, I have to respond."
The half-pint photojournalists of Sonagachi
Manik, 10: "We went to the beach to take pictures. I had never seen the ocean before. I was amazed!"
Shanti, 11: "Zana Auntie teaches us so well that everything goes into our brain. We like doing photography so much that we forget to do our work!"
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Gour, 13: "I want to show in pictures how people live in this city. I want to put across the behavior of man."
Puja, 11: "One day I opened the camera and the whole roll got burned, so I dont do it anymore."
For more photos and photographer statements, visit www.kids-with-cameras.org.