Born into Brothels


The Kids of Sonagachi is a documentary film about nine children of prostitutes who live in Calcutta's largest red light district. Labeled “children of prostitutes” by Indian society, they are not accepted outside the boundaries of the red light district, and within it their fates are sealed as prostitutes, pimps, or drug pushers.

When photojournalist Zana Briski went to Sonagachi to photograph prostitutes, she hadn’t counted on the presence, energy, curiosity, and exuberance of these children who wanted to know all about her and her camera. The kids, often terrorized and abused, were drawn to the rare human companionship she offered. Their interest was so intense that she started weekly classes to teach the kids how to take pictures and let them document their own world. She got to know Kochi, the shyest girl, Puja, the tomboy, Gour, the most thoughtful. She feared for Suchitra, at 15 the oldest and on the brink being put “in the line” and was alternately frustrated by and hopeful for Avijit, the most talented and most egocentric.

She organized trips to the sea, to the zoo, to the photo lab which developed their film, and each week the kids would pour over their contacts sheets and learn to edit their work. Despite misplaced film, lost cameras, and accidentally exposed film, their confidence grew.

It was a creative exchange. They were showing Zana their world through the filter of a camera lens and she was opening their eyes to the possibility of a life other than the one they had expected to follow.

Zana was stunned by the quality of their photographs, which lead her to organize an exhibition in Calcutta. It was a huge success. For the first time in their lives, the kids were applauded for who they are. Their photographs were selected for a calendar by Amnesty International and were auctioned by Sotheby’s in NYC to try to raise money for an education foundation for the kids. One particularly talented boy was flown to Amsterdam to be on the children's jury of the annual World Press Photo Foundation Competition.

She began to see the possibility of photography being a way out of the brothel for the kids. Knowing that every day, the threat of a despairing future grows greater, she began the long, difficult search through the Indian bureaucracy to find schools that would take these “children of sex-workers.” So far, two of the kids, ironically the shyest and the boldest, have left Sonagachi to go the boarding school. Perhaps more will follow.


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