Film shows the plight of prostitutes’ children

Tyrel Linkhorn

Born into Brothels last night in the Kiva. LESLIE CUSANO | DAILY KENT STATER”>

Oscar-winning director Ross Kauffman speaks about his award-winning film Born into Brothels last night in the Kiva. LESLIE CUSANO | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: John Proppe

Ross Kauffman was on the brink of leaving the film industry and wasn’t interested in taking part in then-girlfriend and photojournalist Zana Briski’s project in the red-light district of Calcutta, India.

It took just watching 10 minutes of the first of four films Briski sent back to him in New York to change his mind.

“I knew I was going to Calcutta,” he said.

Kauffman spoke last night in the Kiva as the keynote speaker of the 13th Annual Celebrating College Teaching conference. The event, which was part of the Read Distinguished Lecture Series, drew about 125 people.

Kauffman’s trip to Calcutta led to the pair to create Born into Brothels, an Academy Award-winning documentary about the children of the red-light district. He spoke last night about how the film came to be and the importance of following one’s heart.

By the time Kauffman decided to join Briski in Calcutta, she had been there off and on for several years. She had become particularly drawn to the children during her time there.

“The children are everywhere,” he said. “There is every kind of life imaginable in these tiny alleys.”

Briski decided to teach the children photography by providing them with 20 $50 point-and-shoot cameras.

Kauffman said both he and Briski were “blown away” by the type of work the children were doing. Their photographs were taken by eyes with no preconceptions about the district, he said.

“They were really just from them.”

Born into Brothels follows these child photographers.

Kauffman said after two-and-a-half years, he and Briski returned home to begin editing with 170 hours of film and $30,000 of debt.

They started to receive a few small grants, and eventually they received a grant from the Sundance Institute.

The film was completed one day before its Jan. 14, 2004 premier at the Sundance Film Festival. Kauffman said he took one copy with him on his flight there. He shipped another copy “in case the plane went down,” he joked.

Along with the film, they brought a display of the children’s photographs. During the following two weeks, they sold $12,000 worth of work.

They’ve since raised $200,000 for the children of Calcutta by selling the photographs.

Before he went to Calcutta, Kauffman said he had a good job and was fairly successful, but he wasn’t happy.

“As soon as I listened to my heart, things started to happen,” he said.

Now, he and Briski lead Kids with Cameras, an organization spawned from her original project. They are working to raise another $500,000 to build a school in Calcutta.

All this came from “not even planning or thinking about it,” he said. And while he said no one can ever be sure his or her own work will be productive, that isn’t what is important.

“It’s about going out there and trying,” he said.

Contact student finance reporter Tyrel Linkhorn at [email protected].


$50: The cost of each of the 20 point-and-shoot cameras Briski used to teach the children of Calcutta photography.

$30,000: Amount of debt incurred after two-and-a-half years and 170 hours of film for the making of Born into Brothels.

$12,000: Amount made from selling the children’s photographs during the two weeks following the film’s 2004 Sundance premiere.

$200,000: Total amount raised so far for the children of Calcutta by selling their photographs.