“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime;” give a child a camera and they tell the world the tragic story of their lives. Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids is a 2004 American documentary written and directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman about the young children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Calcutta's red light district. What started out as a trip to photograph a man named Jesus soon turned into a project to help better the lives of children living in horrible conditions with little hope for improvement in their future. Soon after arriving in Calcutta, Zana Briski, referred to as ‘Zana Auntie’ in the documentary, befriends many children living in the red light district who’s mothers were prostitutes. To better understand them, she provided each child with a camera, taught them a little bit about photography and gave them the freedom to capture whatever they wanted. No one ever could have imagined what the children were able to tell the world through their pictures.
In my opinion the documentary is a masterpiece. It does just what it intended to do-- tell the story of the Calcutta children lives, show what their future most likely holds for them and what they would rather their future be. It also documents the steps Briski took to try and give the children a brighter future. Born into Brothels evokes many emotions- sympathy, sadness, frustration. The documentary helps you understand why things are the way they are and makes you want to help; it also makes you somewhat grateful for the life you have. It’s primary goal is to better the lives of the children behind the cameras. Though Briski does exactly what Martha Rosler deems as exploitive in her text, In, Around and Afterthoughts,-- raising money for and lending a hand to the children by setting up exhibitions that display their photos as a fundraiser while also doing everything in her power to get the talented children into boarding schools to give them a little more hope for their future, I do not see it as exploitive. Rosler claims that documenting the people and their way of life the way Briski and Kauffman did makes them seem more helpless and worse off than they actually are; it victimizes them and ever labels them as prostitutes and children of prostitutes. Born into Brothels may show the horrible conditions of the red light district, but it shows the hope that the children have for their future; they want to better themselves. It may victimize them to some extent but it also shows the children overcoming their situation when some take the opportunity to go to school outside of the brothel, even though some were not fortunate enough to stay.
While I think Briski and Kauffman portrayed the children growing up around the sex trade in Calcutta with as little exploitation as possible, critics disagree and after some speculation, I believe they make very good points. “In their advocacy of Sonagachi's children, the directors turned the tables on [the children’s] mothers (and fathers). We see them at their worst: drugged, screaming at the children, shooing them away when clients arrive, fighting with one another, obstructing Briski's efforts to give her students a future” (Swami). Any time the parents of the documented children are filmed, they are screaming profanities, verbally abusing their kids or committing illegal acts. While the directors do not seem to portray the children in a bad light, the shots of the adults are extremely manipulative and are used to make the viewer feel even worse for the children. Briski and Kauffman also seemed to stray away from revealing to the audience that the sex workers in Sonagachi, Calcutta are “well-known [for their] efforts to gain democratic rights, notably the legalization of their profession - and of their growing success in securing rights…[it] is one of the safest centers for sex workers in India” (Swami). Here, again, the directors make the prostitute parents look worse off and more criminal than they really are.
Its much like what John Berger says in Appearances- photography (as well as any other documentary work) is ambiguous. It is up to the photographer, or documentary director in this case, to portray the message they want through their work. What I first thought was a great work of art now makes me wonder what is real and what is not. The children are portrayed in a way that is less exploitive and more sympathetic. Briski and Kauffman want the audience to feel sympathy for the ‘kids with cameras’ growing up in the red light district. They do this by giving them cameras to show the world what they live in and taping interviews of them where they were asked specific heart-wrenching questions that would evoke a feeling of anguish among the audience. The parents, on the other hand are exploited in numerous ways, only being shown yelling profanities, committing crimes, and objecting to their children’s opportunity to attend boarding school. Audience members never get to see “the children of Sonagachi [enjoying] moments of intimacy or comfort with their parents,” and they are never told the story of the prostitutes in the brothel fighting for the legalization of their work. Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman show you what they want to. I guess you never can tell what’s real and what’s not anymore.
Swami, Praveen. "A Missionary Enterprise." Frontline 12 Mar. 2005. India's National Magazine. 9 Mar. 2009