The most obvious question to ask is, with so many other causes in the world, what made you choose to go to an Indian red light district?
I first went to India in 1995 to photograph women and I spent five months photographing around the subject of unwanted girls and female infanticide. I returned to India in 1997 to continue photographing and I was unexpectedly invited to visit a project in the red light district. I knew as soon as I went there that this was the place I needed to be and I spent two years trying to gain access to be able to live in a brothel with the women so I could fully understand their lives.
What was it like, for someone who is both white and a woman, to live in an Indian red light district?
I don’t really identify myself as a “white woman” or as a “photographer” or “filmmaker.” I went there with the intention of deeply listening and understanding and in order to do that I put myself in the “shoes” of the people there as far as possible. It is very evident to me that if I had been born in slightly different circumstances, I too could have been an Indian prostitute. In fact, I’m sure I was in a past life!
What made you decide to move from just giving lessons to making a documentary?
I didn’t intend to teach photography when I first went to the red light district. It was the kids who asked me to teach them and of course I responded. But I was blown away by their enthusiasm, their hunger and their talent and I knew I had to document what was happening. So I picked up a video camera for the first time in my life and started filming as I was teaching. I didn’t even realize I was making a film until much later.
You obviously understand the power of the photo, but it is with film where the cause of the children has truly been brought into the public domain. Any other such projects in the pipeline?
I have just self-published my first photography book of my original work from the red-light district called Brothel, which is available on my web site www.zanabriski.com. I do not plan to make another film right now, but I am happily back to my own photography after five years of exclusively focusing on the kids and the film and the non-profit organization I founded, Kids with Cameras. Film is a powerful medium but I am more of a lone photographer than a filmmaker.
Lastly, can you tell us how the children are doing?
The kids are doing very well. Most of them are in school in India and Avijit is finishing his second year of high school in the U.S. One has chosen to be a prostitute but that is her choice and one that I respect.
To find out more about the non-profit organization Kids With Cameras, which is teaching marginalized kids elsewhere in the world about photography, check out www.kids-with-cameras.org.