“I didn’t 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 don’t like crowds of people. Chaos. Everything. But I couldn’t
do anything else. There wasn’t 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 somebody’s 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 didn’t 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 Briski’s 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 Calcutta’s red-light district, there is something
other than a dank dead end.
For Briski, the plight of Calcutta’s children is inexorably connected
to her bond with Sister Ammachi, India’s “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 Year’s 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, didn’t take. “I don’t like to talk about
religion too much, because I don’t 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 world’s 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 children’s interests
certainly sets them apart from documentarians who parachute into a situation
and then vanish in a vapor trail. But “Zana didn’t 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. We’ve been in credit-card debt, over $100,000 combined,
for the last five years. It’s not like we’re rich Americans trying to save the
“Sonagachi [Calcutta’s red-light district] was almost too
dangerous,” Briski says. “And they’re 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 they’re working in a factory. And there’s 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 Institute’s 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, “it’s 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
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 don’t do it anymore.”
For more photos and photographer statements, visit www.kids-with-cameras.org.