Volume 74, Number 34 | December 29 - January 04, 2004

A photo taken by Avijit, 12, during a photo class, of other Calcutta children in the class. Pictured are, left to right, Mamuni, Kochi and Manik.

Calcutta brothel kids are Noho camera program’s focus

By Claire Hamilton

On Jan. 1, the nonprofit “Kids With Cameras” will occupy its first, formal offices in a loft at Lafayette and Bleecker Sts. The space will provide a base for an organization devoted since 2002 to the welfare of children living in a Calcutta brothel.

Kids With Cameras is gaining attention more recently for the New York premiere of its documentary film “Born into Brothels,” which plays through Jan. 4 at Film Forum.

K.W.C. founder Zana Brinski, or “Zana Auntie” as the children call her, went to Calcutta in 1997 as a photographer intending to document the lives of India’s sex workers. She already had experience with women’s issues, having covered female infanticide in India in 1995.

Once inside the brothel, Brinski, 37, found herself distributing Advil and dehydration salts, paying for operations — supporting the working women as best she could in an environment rife with “alcohol, drugs, swearing, physical and sexual abuse,” she says.

In a society Brinski feels is apathetic to brothel workers she realized that this would be a lifelong project. “There is no motivation [in India] to change,” she says. “There is no support from the government or the police. There are a lot of greedy people making money.”

Brinski lived inside the brothel — alongside the workers, their customers and their children — for two years. She began to focus her efforts on those she felt she had the best chance of influencing — the children of prostitutes. “You can support the women but it’s too hard to change things. I feel there is a lot more hope for the children,” Brinski says. Giving eight of them cameras, Brinski practiced what K.W.C. now calls “empowering children through the art of photography.”

The children created bold, expressive portraits of brothel life. And besides talent, Brinski saw fundraising potential. Sotheby’s agreed to auction the children’s photographs in 2001 and by 2002 Brinski had founded K.W.C. as a venue to sell the prints and return profits back to the kids.

From the brothel, Brinski also wrote letters about the children to friend and now creative director at K.W.C., Ross Kauffman, who had experience with documentary films. Knowing the struggle of filmmaking, it was not until Kauffman saw Brinski’s video footage that he really became interested in making the documentary. “As soon as I saw the kids I knew I was going,” says Kauffman, 38, who arrived in Calcutta three weeks later.

Both Brinski and Kauffman live in the East Village. Brinski is originally from England and Kauffman from Mahopac, N.Y.

“Born into Brothels” grew from over 170 hours of tape and translation that began in 2000. The film, which received the Audience Award at Sundance 2004, follows Brinski’s attempts to get the kids out of brothel life and into schools — which is where K.W.C. directs most of its funds.

The organization is currently scoping out land around Calcutta in order to build a School of Leadership in the Arts in mid-2006. The school would educate only the children of prostitutes, who are according to Brinski “completely underserved in the community.”

The film shows the children as being stigmatized and having few, if any records of their identity, making school a complicated option. But the hardships are also a background to the children’s successes, and their surprising dedication. “I wanted to make a film showing the beauty and intelligence of the kids, how brilliant they are,” Brinski says.

Co-filmmaker Kauffman, who felt welcomed by the brothel workers, remembers, “at any moment we could still could be thrown out because of our cameras. It was a tenuous situation and we had to always be sensitive to everything around us.” Brinski says she received threats, likely from those with a financial interest in the brothels. “There is a lot of trafficking,” Brinski says, “where a woman is promised work, goes to the city and then is locked up” and forced into prostitution.

K.W.C. has expanded its efforts into Cairo, Haiti and Jerusalem. In each city, photography is the technique employed to boost children’s confidence and engage them with their environment, though the organization is flexible about the particulars. In Cairo the children are learning to paint murals from photographs, and the Haitian children are learning to make picture books.

Six of the eight children followed in the Calcutta documentary, who are now 12-15, currently attend school. The other two are in brothels and Brinski is trying to get them out, which is not a matter of paying somebody off. “It’s a matter of pride,” says Brinski. “It’s shameful and sad for the mothers to let their kids go. They see boarding school as an orphanage, as if they can’t take care of their children.” Brinski happily adds that one child, Avijit, goes to one of the best schools in Calcutta. And while another, Gour, is still living in the red-light district, he’s attending computer and English classes, and acting as Brinski’s informant on whether the kids are getting into any trouble.

“Born into Brothels” will open in selected cities nationwide on Jan. 28, and is set for a television premiere in June 2005. Prints can be purchased and donations made through the Web site www.kids-with-cameras.org, which also allows those interested to communicate with the children by e-mail. Asked about the future, Brinski says, “It’s a lifelong project.” As for how she plans the continued support for the program, she explains, “We haven’t gotten there yet.”

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