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I n 1998, photographer Zana Briski started documenting the lives of sex workers in Calcutta’s Red Light District. While there, she befriended the children of prostitutes and began to teach them photography. In 2001, filmmaker Ross Kauffman joined Briski in Calcutta to make the film Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids, which shows what a few photography lessons can do for kids who have nothing. Through Briski’s foundation, Kids With Cameras, the children’s photographs have been shown around the world, and Briski’s and Kauffman’s documentary (opening this week) is already a festival favorite. Nerve sat down with Briski and Kauffman to talk about how photography let the slum kids view their lives from the outside, and ultimately imagine a way out. — Andy Horwitz How did the movie come about?
Zana: I first went to India to photograph in 1995 and then went back in 1997. On that trip a friend of a friend was working for the Ford Foundation, funding a project there. She brought me with her to the red light district in Calcutta, because she knew I was interested in women’s issues. There was no ulterior motive; I just was interested, and it blew me away. It was really incredible. As soon as I walked into that neighborhood it was very clear that that’s where I wanted to photograph.
And Ross — how did you get involved?
Ross: Zana had come back from Calcutta, she told me about the kids, told me about what she was doing. We would talk about making a film together and at the time I said, “No, I don’t want to spend the next four years of my life doing that.” Then Zana bought a video camera and she just went. She shot four videos and sent them back to me. When I looked at the first one, I saw the joy in the kids’ faces and thought, “How could I not do this?” And I was in Calcutta about three weeks later.
The film is about the children of prostitutes. These women are said to “work the line.” What does that mean?
Zana: It comes from women standing in a line on the street.
Ross: You walk down the street, and the women are just lined up, all the way down.
Zana: “Working the Line” is the polite word. They have more explicit words for whore, there are a million different versions. And that will come out when they’re cursing, but generally they’ll just refer to it as “the line.”
There is a scene in the movie where there’s a huge fight in the brothel and its nearly impossible to figure out what’s going on.
Zana: Initially, we had more of an explanation, but we cut that because that’s really how it is: chaos. People will start screaming over anything. Someone flicks some water over someone else and it will just blow up. It happens every day and it’s really just their way of letting off steam.
Ross: They’re in really close quarters.
Zana: The average room is the size of this desk to the wall [about 4 feet] and you’ll have a mother working and these kids, and maybe a man, living in something that small.
Ross: Two kids can be living in there, a mother, a grandmother…and there’s a raised platform under which the kids sleep in one cot.
Zana: And all the cots are on the floor. You can never tell what’s going to happen. Generally, the children and the women are very resilient and very durable. There are some kids who are just battered and can’t see anything better. Others can see a way out. I was constantly humbled, because I didn’t know how they could handle it. I certainly couldn’t have handled it, and I had the privilege of leaving, which I was very well aware of. It was hard for me physically, emotionally, in every way, to be there. And they just survive.
Were you frightened for your safety?
Ross: Occasionally. We would shoot in the streets only because we felt that we needed to show the streets. But to bring a camera out in the streets is just very, very stupid. So we moved quickly with the cameras held low and tried to capture what we could.
Zana: To be a woman living in brothel not as a prostitute was pretty stupid, altogether.
How aware are the kids of what their mothers do?
Zana: They’re very aware. They won’t talk about it. They never admit what their mothers do. Not even to us. By the end of long relationships they might talk about other mothers, what other kids’ mothers do. But not their own.
How did you decide to teach the kids photography? Did they even know what a camera was?
Zana: Yeah, they know what cameras are. They were grabbing at mine all the time. They’ve not had contact with them usually. But I would always have my camera out. I wouldn’t shoot very much, but I always had it out. So they would come from behind me and start touching it, which annoyed the hell out of me, because I was trying to take pictures! And that’s when I thought it would be so great to teach them. And I started to teach them on my cameras. Then I came back to America and bought point-and-shoot cameras and gave those to the kids.
The photos they took are amazing. How much guidance did you give them in terms of photography?
Zana: Well, I started right from the beginning: how to load the batteries, not to put the fingers on the lens, and I had to repeat all those basic things over and over and over again. They would still open up the camera. They would still shoot without the flash. So that was always ongoing. The hardest thing was to get them not to take the pictures where everyone’s standing stiffly. They have their pictures taken formally in these little photo booth places and that is what everybody knows and thinks of as photography.
I really broke the ice with one class where I told them to partner up and to shoot a whole roll of film of their partner, but every photo had to be different. And I explained to them that a portrait could be a picture of somebody’s hand, and so we did that one week and repeated that the next week. After that things got kind of crazy, much freer. Through the course of the film the kids seem to really get a sense of their own lives. How did that change throughout the class?
Zana: They were not reflective before. Maybe Avijit [one of the students] was a little bit. He was used to looking, because he was an artist already. But none of them were reflective about their own lives, and that really came over time. That came over them discussing the contact sheets and discussing who was in the pictures and what was going on and what we thought of the pictures.
And yet, in the face of this squalor, they seemed to retain an innocence.
Ross: You know, when we got back to America, I wasn’t so intimidated by logging and editing a couple hundred hours of footage. But all of it was in Bengali, only some in English. And I felt really strongly that every drop of that footage had to be translated because the kids would just be so free and easy in front of the camera that at any time a little moment would be wonderful. There’s this one shot where Puja [one of the girl students] is walking up the stairs with Gor [one of the boys] and she turns to the camera and says something like, “Ah, I’m always carrying his things.” And it was just so perfect. Gor and Puja were sort of in love with each other. It could be a Bollywood movie.
Are you going to turn it into a Bollywood movie?
Zana: We did get an offer.
Ross: The thing is that kids are kids. And when we were making the film one of our main goals was to make a film that people could really love these kids as much as we do. And it seems to come through. People really react to it.
Are any of the kids coming to America?
Zana: They will.  
Born Into Brothels opened Dec. 8.  

  Andy Horwitz is a writer and performer living in New York City. His monologues have been called everything from "high-octane, raucous comedy" to "inquisitive and insightful." His writing has appeared in Heeb, The Seattle Stranger and various anthologies. He edits the alternative performance blog Culturebot.org and in 2005 ran for Mayor of New York City, a performance project documented online at andyformayor.org.