Review of Born into Brothels by Briski & Kauffman’s (2004) documentary   Leave a comment

Briski & Kauffman’s (2004) documentary was effective as a participatory action research project which was funded so she could observe by living with the people and become part of their community in order to get a glimpse into their culture. According to Rahman (1991), “At the micro level, PAR is a philosophy and style of work with people tp promote people’s empowerment for changing their immediate environment – social and physical – in their favor” (p. 80). Briski commented, “I knew I couldn’t do it as a visitor, I wanted to stay with them, live with them and understand their lives.” Briski took on the role of a narrative inquirer as Clandinin & Connelly (2000) discussed, “…they settle in, live and work alongside participants, and come to experience not only what can be seen and talked about directly but also the things not said and not done that shape the narrative structure of their observations and their talking (p. 113).

The photographer began with a project about women and began a second project about children and camera’s. It was interesting to watch her research goals change as she focused more on the children and their photography then her first intention of being dedicated to the women of the red light district. Were Briski’s goals scattered? Yes, because she was not a researcher or as she stated, “I’m not a social worker, I am not a teacher, that’s my fear that I cannot do anything… even helping them get an education is not going to do anything, but without help they’re doomed.” Was she prepared as a researcher? Probably not. The research was effective in showing the world of the unspeakable as research is all about uncovering the truth as Avijit described one photo, “We get a good sense of how these people live, and though there is sadness in it and though it’s hard to face, we must look at it because it is truth.” Briski was able to portray the violence, discrimination, social injustices, and criminal acts on women and children. Her research was effective in it resulted in opening the door to education to those who only wished for it as Kochi commented, “I keep thinking if I could go someplace and get education, I wonder what I would become.”

What was the researcher’s intention? To see the world through oppressed children’s eyes. In the end, the research may have uncovered the truth, but at what cost to the children? Yes, they were empowered for a brief moment in their lives, yet is was the traditions within their culture that pulled them back into a state of hopelessness as Puja, Manik, and Suchitra’s relatives pulled them out of school, Shanti ran away from school whereas, Tapasi ran away to school, Avijit and Gour are choosing to go to school in the future. It is sad to say that what was supposed to be a beneficial project turned into a lawsuit as many charges were made against the filmmakers as Fine Weis, L. Weseen & Wong (2000) noted, “…ethnographic method is more likely to leave subjects exposed to exploitation: The greater the intimacy, accordingly to Stacy, the greater the danger” (p.37).

I could see the participant’s stories being honored in the sense that respect was given to the children for their stories and for their artwork during the showings. It was their narratives that compelled Briski to institute a non-profit organization, Kids with Cameras, to link photography, education and new beginnings in honor of the kids who were the direct participants. The next question becomes who’s consented to the research in order for their stories to be honored? The parents, indirect participants of the children did not consent to their lives being portrayed negatively without interviewing them and their circumstances and to have both sides given although the research was on children and photography. These people lived criminal lifestyles and as indirect participants seemed to be dishonored since the researcher did not hear their side of the story. The lack of inclusion seemed to skew what was being tapped and swayed the viewer’s attention to see through the eyes of a photographer.

The children’s stories were connected to their environment and Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. Those who were weak, the children, were overpowered and controlled. Those who were female were overpowered and controlled. The children were given the space to tell their stories through the lens of a camera. They told of abuse, neglect, social injustices, oppression, discrimination, despair, sadness and yet a hope for the future in all their photographs. Their space was filled with respect, lack of respect, the need to learn, the desire to be educated, fear of “the line”, and fear of the future as Avijit remarked at Puja’s house saw father beat mother over drinking money, “I wish I could take Puja away from here. When she grows up she’ll end up on the street. She’ll do drugs and snatch people’s money.” The space was used as a metaphor for going to the zoo to view the caged animals, as the children felt like caged animals in their environment and to show that the researcher will always be an outsider like the kids observing the animals at zoo. Their space was a juxtaposition of children laughing at the beach, dancing on the bus to their cultural music as all children do and the reality of their oppressed lives waiting for them to return. The photographer promoted kids art work at a gallery and auction to raise money for the kids. This empowered the children and changed their space briefly.

Was Briski a researcher since she never claimed to be one? The photographer felt an ethical responsibility to bring education to the oppressed children by teaching children of sex workers how and why to use a camera. Her techniques resulted in portraying an attachment for the participants as her concerns grew and as she searched through the red tape in order to help which conflicted with her photographic objective reporting. Although Peshkin (1998) stated, “…in fact, points out that subjectivity can be seen as virtuous, for it is the basis of researchers making distinctive contribution, one that results from the unique configuration of their personal qualities joined to the data they have collected (cited in Merriam & Simpson, 2000, p. 98). She was not a teacher or a social worker but a researcher and photographer who tried to implement social change within a small community that lived in the brothels of Calcutta. However, she took on tasks of a researcher such as in making sense of the telling rather than the tell (Lawrence, 2010, p.75) and weaving the participants original voice with her summary and interpretation” (Lawrence & Butterwick, 2012, p. 207). Her method of research created spaces of art through photography revealing power relations and inequities as Greene (1995) reported, “…speaks to imagination, a key dimension of arts-based teaching. To tap into imagination is to . . . break with what is supposedly fixed and finished, objectively and independently real . . . to see beyond what the imaginer has called normal or ―common-sensible and to carve out new orders in experience . . . to glimpse what might be, to form notions of what should be and what is not yet” (cited in Lawrence, & Butterwick, 2012, p. 207).


Briski, Z. & Kauffman, R. (2004). Born into Brothels [Video file]. Retrieved from,

Clandinin, D. J. & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Being in the field: Walking in the midst of stories.
Narrative Inquiry. 107-123. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from,

Fine, M. Weis, L. Weseen, S. & Wong, L. (2000). For whom? Qualitative research,
representations, and social responsibilities. Handbook of Qualitative Research, Sage
Publications, (4), 29-53.

Lawrence, R. (2012). Narrative Inquiry: A brief overview. Approaches to critical Inquiry and
research. 75-76. New York, NY: Sage Publications

Lawrence, R. L. & Butterwick, S. (2012). Synchronized Swimming: Arts-based Approaches to
Teaching Novice Researchers. Retrieved from,

Merriam, S., & Simpson, E.L. (2000). A guide to research for educators and trainers of adults: Second edition (updated). Malabar, Florida, Krieger Publishing Company.

Mohammad Anisur Rahman, “The Theoretical Standpoint of PAR,” Action and Knowledge, ed. Fals-Borda and Rahman (NY: The Apex Press). Handbook of Qualitative Research, Sage Publications, 77-87.




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