One of them happens when Suchitra, one of the eight children born to prostitutes in Calcutta’s slums faces the prospect, and probable reality, of being forced by her aunt to join “the line” of women who sells themselves for others’ profits. A male voice asks the budding photographer if she sees a way out of her situation. The girl’s face clouds as she thinks and hopes and ponders before saying, with quiet resignation, “No.”
We learn at the film’s end that Suchitra’s aunt did not allow her to leave the brothel. Watching the film’s special features reveals that three years later her aunt had not made her join the line, and my feeling was that that was a temporary condition.
The sense of bright, beautiful and resilient children being almost inexorably swallowed up by social forces far greater than them and not of their creation pulses through Briski’s film, even as she offers photography and tenacious intervention as tiny antidotes that knock a few of the children away from their socially prescribed destiny.
The film, which garnered dozens of awards, including the 2005 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, is based on the premise that art and love can be tools for individual, if not collective, transformation.
My brother Jon has shown his own dogged commitment to using photography as a way to show the world what is happening on Chicago’s South Side and with Latino immigrants during the past decade. For several of those years, he taught a bunch of self-proclaimed “Wild Photographers” at Paul Revere Elementary School in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Like Briski, Jon encountered, struggled with and mentored a group of intelligent, sprightly and gifted children, many of whom were eventually swallowed by the streets.
Lemoninster, Mass. native Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, like Briski, dedicated many years of her life to following the hazards and perils of four young people growing up in the South Bronx-an experience she recounted in Random Family. Like Briski and Jon, LeBlanc brings a moral vision and seemingly bottomless compassion to her work. All three gained the trust necessary to have remarkably intimate access to their subjects’ lives. And each of these artists and journalists bring a profound belief in the young people’s gifts and the beauty of ordinary moments, even if they are not enough to undo an at times immutable and bleak landscape in which the children live.
I have not yet seen Briski’s book, but was deeply moved by the film. Jon is well on his way to publishing books on the South Side and immigration projects, and LeBlanc’s book, a gift from editor Rui Kaneya, was one of my favorites of 2008. I recommend them all.