In 1998, my then-girlfriend, photographer Zana Briski, began traveling
to Calcutta to photograph life in the red light district. She literally
lived in the brothels for months at a time, and while the prostitutes
slowly came to trust Zana, it was their children who accepted her immediately.
The children didn’t quite understand what Zana was doing there,
but they were fascinated by her and her camera. She let them use it
and showed them how to take pictures. She thought it would be great
to see this world through their eyes. It was then that she decided to
start formal classes in the red light district and teach them photography.
Zana thrived on teaching them and the kids eagerly
captured their lives and environment through the lens of their point-and-shoot
cameras. The results of their work were exhilarating.
When Zana returned six months later to New York City, she was bursting
excitement about the kids and the class. She felt that their stories
and the photo class should be documented in some way.
I remember telling Zana, “Look, if you want to go and spend all
your money [she had none] to enter the dubious arena of documentary
filmmaking for years to come, feel free. As for me, I will stay in New
York, focus on my career and become a cameraperson.”
But Zana seemed to know me better than I knew myself. I guess she knew
there was a filmmaker somewhere inside of me, and it just needed a good
reason to come out. Before leaving again for Calcutta, she bought two
video cameras on her credit card. She gave me one for my birthday,
and took the other one with her to Calcutta.
Two weeks later, Zana’s first four
videotapes arrived from Calcutta for me to “critique” (she
had never shot video before). Within the first ten minutes of viewing
the first tape, I knew I was going to Calcutta. The footage was breathtaking—these
“children of prostitutes,” these glorious kids, these brilliant
rays of light, smiling, laughing, taking photos. I was floored. I was
Three weeks later I was in Calcutta making this movie with Zana.
There are many legitimate reasons not to make documentary films. But
in this case, I present to you eight wonderfully incredible, delightfully
ridiculous, funny, sweet, loving, sneaky, unwieldy and ultimately beautiful
reasons to take the leap.
1. Kochi, 10
All you have to do is look at her. Better yet, all she has to do is
look at you. Those dreamy eyes lock into yours and you immediately fall
in love with her. The effect is such that you want to hold her hand
and protect her from all that surrounds her. But don’t let the
eyes fool you. Behind them lies a girl who is strong and resilient,
tough and sensitive. She uses the camera to escape her surroundings
and says that she prefers taking photos to editing. She is shy, sweet
and vulnerable, but can handle the harsh realities of life, and does
so with grace.
2. Avijit, 12
the most talented kid in the red light district (and maybe all of Calcutta
for that matter), Avijit is a true artist. Sitting in his overcrowded
room, watching life go by, drawing, painting, photographing. When Zana
first asked me to come make a film, it was Avijit’s work that
she kept pointing to on the contact sheets saying, “This kid is
a genius! I’ve been shooting for twenty years and he is better
than me!” And of course, once I met him, watched him paint and
take photos, I understood exactly what she meant. (I, too, am a bit
jealous of his talents.) And like most great artists, he has the ego
to match his talent.
3. Shanti, 11
love Shanti. So smart, so witty and quick. But in the end, she is troubled.
I feel for her and worry that she may never make it out of the red light
district. While I was in Calcutta, I made an English book for the kids.
I took one of those Lonely Planet phrase books, copied it and asked
my translator to translate it into Bengali, the native language of Calcutta.
I made eight copies, passed them out to all the kids and started teaching
them English. Shanti was easily the most focused and ready to learn.
And she was talented with the video camera as well (she filmed some
of the classroom scenes in the film). She has a voracious appetite to
learn, but I fear her self-destructive behavior may get the best of
4. Manik, 10
kid. Sweet to the core. He lives in a small room with his sister Shanti
and loves to fly kites. Though quiet, he is a daring photographer who
likes to experiment with composition. He says he now likes photography
more than kites.
5. Gour, 13
is incredible. From the first moment I saw footage of this kid, I knew
he was special. Sensitive and thoughtful, he dislikes his environment
and wants to use photography to change it. But don’t let him fool
you. He has a wicked sense of humor and always loves to smile and laugh.
He is best friends with Puja. I always would joke with them that they
would get married. I still think they might.
6. Puja, 11
tomboy at heart, Puja is best friends with Gour. She is always laughing,
always smiling, always up to something. I used to joke with Puja and
Gour, asking them if they would invite me to their marriage once they
decided to tie the knot. And of course, as soon as I finished my sentence,
she would have a comeback, usually something along the lines of “As
soon as you and Zana auntie tie the knot!!!! Then maybe you can come
to our wedding!!!”
7. Tapasi, 11
wants to be a teacher and dreams of being able to take care of her younger
brother and sister. She photographs the harsh reality of life, using
the camera to tell her story. My first night in Calcutta, Tapasi was
upset. I forget about what exactly, but while all the other kids were
having a good time, she was in the corner, frowning and sad. I couldn’t
stand to see her like that. In a matter of twenty minutes, I had her
laughing, and from that point on, we were great friends. She is a natural
teacher, patient and understanding. At one point, I made an attempt
to learn Bengali, and she taught me with an incredible amount of patience
and understanding. I was amazed at how a child from the red light district
could be so centered and kind.
8. Suchitra, 14
miss Suchitra. She is the oldest of the group. Shy and quiet, Suchitra
is a gifted photographer, taking pictures of daily life from her rooftop.
Suchitra’s photo of her friend Dipika was chosen as the cover
of the Amnesty International 2003 Calendar. Most people pick up a camera,
quickly snap a shot and that is it. Suchitra patiently takes the time
to look through the viewfinder at what she is trying to capture, and
most times, she does it brilliantly.