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Zana Briski was born in London, England and lives in New York City. After earning a master’s degree in theology and religious studies at the University of Cambridge, she studied documentary photography at International Center of Photography in New York from 1990-91. In 1992, she won First Prize, an Eastman Kodak Grant, at the Eddie Adams Workshop. In 1995, she made her first trip to India, producing a story on female infanticide. Her work earned a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 1997 and a National Press Photographers Association Picture of the Year Award. It also gained her admittance to the World Press Photo Foundation Master Class in Amsterdam, The Netherlands in 1996. In 1997, she returned to India and began her project on the prostitutes of Calcutta’s red light district. In 1998, she became a Light Work artist-in Residence. She was twice a finalist for the prestigious W. Eugene Smith annual Grant in Humanistic Photography in 1999 and 2000, and has received two fellowships: George Soros’ Open Society Institute Fellowship in 1999, and an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship in 2000. In 2000, she was also awarded a First Prize at the World Press Photo Foundation, and a Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. In 2000, she was awarded a special Editions Fellowship by the Lower East Side Print Shop to make a series of photogravures of her work from India. In 2001, she received the Howard Chapnick Grant for the Advancement of Photojournalism.
Since 2000, she has conducted a series of photographic workshops with children of prostitutes in the brothels of Calcutta. The photographs produced by the children were auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York in 2001 and presented in Amnesty International’s 2003 calendar. In 2002, Briski was awarded grants from the Sundance Institute, the Jerome Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts for her film work-in-progress, Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids, a feature documentary about the children of Calcutta’s prostitutes. In 2002, Briski formed Kids With Cameras, a non-profit organization to empower marginalized children through learning the art of photography.
2006 27th ANNUAL News & documentary Emmy® AWARDS – Best Documentary for Born into Brothels
2005 77TH ACADEMY AWARDS® – Best Documentary Feature for Born into Brothels
2005 FLYING ELEPHANTS FOUNDATION FELLOWSHIP
2005 LUCIE HUMANITARIAN AWARD
2005 IFP INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARDS DIRECTV/IFC – Truer Than Fiction Award
2004 L.A. FILM CRITICS – Best Documentary of the Year
2004 INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY ASSOCIATION – Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award
2004 NATIONAL BOARD OF REVIEW – Best Documentary of the Year
2004 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL – Audience Award
2004 HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH – Nestor Almendros Prize for Courage in Filmmaking
2004 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL – Best Documentary Award
2004 SILVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL – Audience Award
2004 FULL FRAME DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL – Audience Award
2004 ATLANTA FILM FESTIVAL – Turner Broadcasting Audience Award
2004 NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL – Best Documentary and Audience Awards
2004 CLEVELAND FILM FESTIVAL – Audience Award
2004 AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL – Audience Award
2004 BERMUDA FILM FESTIVAL – Best Documentary and Audience Awards
2004 DURANGO FILM FESTIVAL – Best Documentary, Filmmaker’s and Audience Awards
2004 NEWPORT BEACH FILM FESTIVAL – Special Merit Award
2004 ARTIVIST FILM FESTIVAL – Children’s Day Award
2004 SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL – Audience Award
2004 BENDFILM – Audience Award and Best Score
2004 CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL – The Gold Hugo for Best Documentary and the Level Above the Rest prize
2004 HIGH FALLS FILM FESTIVAL – Audience Award
2004 PORTLAND FILM FESTIVAL – Best Documentary
2004 ASHLAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL – Best Documentary
2004 PLANETE DOC REVIEW, WARSAW – Best Documentary
2002 SUNDANCE INSTITUTE – grant for Born Into Brothels
2002 JEROME FOUNDATION – grant for Born Into Brothels
2002 NEW YORK STATE COUNCIL ON THE ARTS, grant for Born Into Brothels
2001 HOWARD CHAPNICK GRANT, New York
2000 WORLD PRESS PHOTO FOUNDATION, Amsterdam – 1st prize, daily life stories
2000 DOROTHEA LANGE-PAUL TAYLOR PRIZE, Center for Documentary Studies, N.C.
2000 LOWER EAST SIDE PRINTSHOP, New York – Special Editions Fellowship
2000 ALICIA PATTERSON FOUNDATION FELLOWSHIP, Washington D.C.
1999 OPEN SOCIETY INSTITUTE FELLOWSHIP, New York
1998 NEW YORK FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS FELLOWSHIP
1998 LIGHT WORK ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE, Syracuse, New York
1996 WORLD PRESS PHOTO FOUNDATION MASTER CLASS, Amsterdam
1996 NEW YORK FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS FELLOWSHIP
1995 NPPA, Pictures of the Year award – Global News Picture Story – Female Infanticide
1992 EDDIE ADAMS WORKSHOP V – 1st prize, Eastman Kodak Grant
PERSPECTIVE PHOTOGRPAHS BY THE CHILDREN OF CALCUTTA
The stunning images that emerged from Born into Brothels landed at Sotheby’s for auction and became the artwork for an Amnesty International calendar
The camera barely keeps up with a small child running up a stairwell, thin legs flaying around blind corners, until the stairs lead to a cramped room where a family lives, except when the mother needs the space for work.
Their remarkable images and stories form the spine of a documentary that has given international attention to the plight of Calcutta’s most stigmatized families; and the film is helping these children escape a likely future of prostitution and drug dealing.
Briski first travelled to India a decade ago to document women’s issues, from female infanticide to life in the red-light districts. “I felt very drawn to India,” she says, “but not because it was somewhere I had wanted to go for a long time. Literally everything was saying, go to India. I quit my job and the next day I was on a plane.”
She spent close to five months in the country in 1995 and returned two years later to continue her photography work. On the latter trip, she continues, “someone took me to the specific red-light district [that appears in the film] and I was completely blown away. I knew that was where I needed to be.”
Two more years passed before Briski got close enough to the families in one of the brothels to be allowed to live there. “I absolutely fell in love with the women and wanted to live with them, wanted to really understand what their lives were like,” she says.
But the situation was constantly difficult and frightening. Cameras are utterly taboo. Prostitution is illegal; trafficking in drugs is illegal; and yet everyone, from those within the political system and non-governmental organizations to the police and the pimps, “have a hand in it,” Briski says. Shame and stigma have ruled out any chance for the women to escape their circumstances. And even after Briski gained their trust, some of the women refused to be photographed.
Not the children. Ranging in age from 10 to 14, they quickly latched on to Briski. She began by giving a group of children point-and-shoot cameras and taught them the basics, from composition to picture editing. Briski felt “a particular karma” with the kids, and she has remained with them for nearly three years.
“There were more children that wanted to be a part of the class,” she continues, “and I actually taught another class as well. But these were basically mafia kids. It was very difficult to affect their lives, and I ended up dropping that class, because the mafia was putting pressure on me.”
Fear and intimidation surrounded Briski, particularly while filming. “I was scared all the time. [But]for me, the scary thing was to lose access [to the children]and having to shut down.”
The documentary doesn’t linger on the lives of the adults in the brothel, but it does show the children fending off continual verbal abuse and violent shouting matches between the families. “Those fights could erupt at any moment. The camera could have been smashed at any moment. We could have been beaten up. I could have been arrested,” says Briski, who lived off credit-card loans to keep the project going.
“It was a very tenuous situation in that place,” adds Ross Kauffman, 37, a documentary editor and cameraman who collaborated on the film. At the outset, Kauffman, who was involved romantically with Briski, was skeptical about joining the project. The couple lacked funds and there were obvious risks inherent in walking through a red-light district with a camera. But when Briski sent preliminary footage to Kauffman in New York, he was immediately convinced. Once in Calcutta, the women and children instantly warmed to Kauffman on the strength of their close rapport with Briski.
Ultimately, the filmmakers shot 170 hours of footage in Bengali, all of which had to be translated. They promised the families that the documentary wouldn’t be shown in India, although on their most recent trip to Calcutta, the children had a chance to see it. Some of them laughed hysterically, but Kochi, age 10 in the film and one of the youngest, found it difficult to watch her life as it had been. She now studies at a boarding school.
The whole project was a case of “simply about being responsible and responding to what is around me,” Briski says. “I didn’t go there to save kids. I went there as a photographer . . . and the children approached me to learn photography. I tried to help the women. I tried many, many things for the women, and it proved almost impossible to change the system, because it’s such a tight structure. Hopefully by educating the children, some of them will go back to the red-light district and they’ll actually change things.”