Zana Briski Returns to Photography

Zana Briski onstage at the 2006 Sundance Awards Night at the Sundance Film Festival
Peter Kramer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

In the late 1990s, Zana Briski, a London-born Cambridge University theology student turned photographer, ventured to India to document, as she puts it, "the particular hells that women can go through; sex-selective abortion, dowry deaths, the treatment of widows, child marriages." It was never her intention, she says, to photograph prostitutes until she was introduced to Sonagachi, the red light district of Calcutta.

When I entered the red-light district I had a very strong feeling of recognition and I knew that this was why I had come to India," she says in an e-mail interview. "I spent two years gaining access - it took me that long to be offered a room in a brothel so I could live there. I photographed the women when conditions allowed and spent day after day just hanging around, watching, listening.

Fate took yet another turn when Briski began interacting with the children of the prostitutes. "I would play with the children and let them use my camera. They wanted to learn photography - that was their idea not mine. So I bought point-and-shoot film cameras and chose several kids who were most eager and committed and started to teach them in formal classes," she says.

From the very first class, she adds, "I knew something special was happening and that I needed to film what was going on. I had never picked up a video camera before, but I bought one and started filming as I was teaching the kids and living in the brothel."

Eventually, Briski persuaded her friend, filmmaker Ross Kauffman, to join her in India. Over the next two years, the pair documented Briski's efforts not just to teach the children photography, but to get them into good schools where they might have a chance at a more hopeful future.

The result was "Born Into Brothels," a gritty and poignant account of Briski's time with the red-light kids of Calcutta, as they came to be known. At turns joyous and heartbreaking, the film focuses on eight of the kids in particular, including Kochi, a painfully shy girl who almost certainly faces a life in prostitution unless she can escape the poverty and despair of Sonagachi and gain admission to a boarding school; and Avijit, the most gifted of Briski's students who nonetheless nearly gives up on photography after his mother is murdered. With the kind of eloquence that comes only from children, Avijit tells an interviewer early in the film, "there is nothing called hope in my future."

Shot on a shoestring budget, in a setting light-years from Hollywood, "Brothels" might have languished in obscurity. But the film not only garnered raves from critics; it won the 2004 Academy Award for best documentary feature. Meanwhile, a book of the children's photos was published and Briski set up a foundation, Kids With Cameras, to help pay for their schooling.

Sadly, fairy-tale endings are all-too-rare. Even with funding and encouragement not all of the red light kids, now young adults, have fared well in the intervening years. Briski confirmed a BBC report that one of the girls featured in the film later became a prostitute. She did so "by choice and I respect her choice," Briski says. "I don't consider that a failure or a shame. I trust she knows what is best for her."

Many of the other children did go on to school in India, some even in the United States. Briski said Kochi studied at a prestigious school in Utah for several years before returning to India to finish her education. And recently Avijit, the child prodigy in "Brothels," graduated from NYU's film school. "Amazing," Briski says. "I am so proud of him and all he has accomplished."

Most people, having won an Oscar for their very first film, might be expected to continue on that path. But Briski felt pulled to return to her first love, photography, and a project called "Reverence," in which she photographs insects around the world.

Asked why she chose not to continue with filmmaking, Briski, 45, says even after winning an Oscar:

"I do not consider myself to be a documentary filmmaker or a journalist. I move through the world in an open way and I respond to what is around me. 'Born Into Brothels' and 'Kids With Cameras' were not planned in any way. They were a response to what I discovered in the world."

"Photography is my medium," she adds. "I am a traditional black-and-white photographer and I still shoot film and work in the darkroom."

"Reverence," Briski says, came to her "through dreams of a praying mantis. The experience was so strong that I had to pay attention. Strange praying mantis 'coincidences' would happen and I began to follow the clues" - clues that have taken her to 18 countries to photograph and film mantids and other insects over the past seven years. Currently she's photographing jaguars in Brazil.

If all goes as planned, the culmination of Briski's work will be a traveling museum with large-scale photographs, film and music. The project, which Briski hopes to open when she receives enough funding, "is about respect of all life forms and changing our point of view.

"Not so different," she adds, "from what I did in the brothels - bringing attention to those who are feared, ignored, abused, from their point of view."