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Young Photographers from the Streets of Calcutta

Born into Brothels, a new film documentary, tells the story of children growing up in poverty in Calcutta's red-light district who find hope in a newfound skill -- photography. NPR's Melissa Block talks with photographer and filmmaker Zana Briski, who got to know the children and taught them how to use a camera to tell their own stories.

Briski formed Kids with Cameras, a non-profit organization to help educate the children of Calcutta's brothels, and to empower other marginalized children around the world through photography.

In the following passage from Born into Brothels, the book accompanying the film, Briski describes how the project came about.

Zana Briski: Behind the Project

In 1998 I began living with prostitutes in a squalid red light district of Calcutta.

When I first went to India in 1995, I had no idea what lay ahead. I began to travel and photograph the harsh realities of women's lives ­-- female infanticide, child marriage, dowry deaths and widowhood.

I had no intention of photographing prostitutes until a friend took me to the red light district in Calcutta. From the moment I stepped foot inside that maze of alleyways, I knew that this was the reason I had come to India.

I spent months trying to gain access to this impenetrable place. I knew I wanted to live with the women, to really understand their lives. Finally a brothel owner gave me a room. It took a long time before I gained the trust of the women. As they waited for clients, I waited with them. I sat for hours on end, joking, playing, experiencing the tediousness and the volatile emotions that erupt where women find themselves trapped in an inescapable world, forced to sell affection in order to live and care for their children.

It was the children who accepted me immediately. They didn't quite understand what I was doing there, but they were fascinated by me and my camera. I let them use it and showed them how to take pictures. I thought it would be great to see this world through their eyes. It was then that I decided to teach them photography.

On my next trip I brought ten point-and-shoot cameras and selected a group of kids who were most eager to learn. I had no idea what I was doing, but the kids loved it and turned up to class every week. And the results were amazing. I gave up my own photography and began to work with the kids full time. I knew that there was something important to document here so I bought a video camera and began to film the kids in the brothels, in the streets and on photo class trips. I had never even picked up a video camera before.

I invited Ross Kauffman to Calcutta to come and make a film with me. He didn't want to come, so I sent him some of the tapes to look at, knowing that he would fall in love with the kids, as I had done. Soon after he was on a plane for Calcutta. He was worried about the story. I told him to wait. The story would reveal itself.

And it did.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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