I run a nonprofit in Oakland, California, that teaches teens music and filmmaking. One of the first youth I worked with—I’ll call him Damon—was homeless and had spent over a year living with his family in a four-door sedan. Sixteen years old, his ankles were swollen from sleeping upright and he rarely got the chance to wash his clothes or take showers. The only money his mother received to provide for him and his sister was public assistance through her boyfriend. Needless to say, it wasn’t enough for them to live on, so Damon and his sister sold candy at school and on the streets.
My staff and I knew that the kids could get help at a children’s shelter, and we told Damon this, but it was something the family would not consider. They loved each other deeply and said they would rather live in hard circumstances than be split up. Whenever a social worker caught wind of their situation, they’d drive outside county lines for a week, to hide.
My staff struggled to figure out what we could and should do. We didn’t want to sit passively by while Damon and his sister suffered. But we also knew that the kids were not being abused and it wasn’t our job to decide what was best for the family. In the end, we sometimes took the family’s clothes home to wash them. We also gave Damon pocket money for meals and called social workers to learn more about their options. We often struggled with the frustration that we were not doing enough. Other times we wondered if we were taking charge too much by encouraging them to seek the kind of help we thought they needed.
Most of us who work with youth have lost some sleep over dilemmas like this. Last month, Hollywood learned a little about these kinds of struggles when a documentary film about a youth media artist made it to the Oscarsand won.
Born into Brothels is a must-see for everyone, but especially for those of us working in the youth field. Not only does it do a great job of celebrating youth media, it also raises the kind of ethical issues that come up when you’re working with kids in challenging environments. The challenges are magnified for the movie’s star and co-director, Zana Briski, because the kids she works with are young—under the age of 14—and because she is a British-Canadian photographer and filmmaker working in India. Watching Briski negotiate her work with the kids through a translator and strict societal rules is fascinating. I only wish the ethical issues Briski encounters—the ones that make youth work so nuanced and tricky—had been better examined.
Briski went to Calcutta to photograph prostitution. She wanted to capture the red-light district’s people, their relationships and their struggles. But Briski had trouble photographing the adult workers in the trade. Understandably the women, their husbands, and johns were suspicious about her intentions.
As is often the case, the kids were the ones most willing to set aside their suspicions and explore their curiosity. In this instance, their curiosity was Briski—a white, well-intentioned foreign woman from a comparatively privileged background—and the cameras and photography lessons she offered them.
With cameras in hand, Briski’s young students embarked on an amazing journey as photojournalists and cultural anthropologists. The kids’ intimate and playful portraits of their family, friends, and neighbors surpass what Briski had initially sought to accomplish herself. Briski had wanted to capture an authentic portrayal of the red-light district, but the kids’ views on their own lives seem far more moving and irreplaceable than what any adult could have documented. I loved this. It captured what many of us working with youth in media regularly preach—that kids possess unique lenses on life that are worth sharing with others.
Born into the Brothels also shows how transformative and empowering it can be for kids and teens to share their stories through art. One of the talented youth, Avijit, is flown to Amsterdam to participate in an international youth photo exhibit. When you hear Avijit’s sophisticated critique of a photo in Amsterdam, you can’t help but get swept up, wondering how far the cameras and Briski can take the seven kids she works with.
But it disturbed me to watch Briski fall into a trap common to youth work, and never quite realize it is a trap. Briski assumed that she knew what was best for the kids. That assumption remained dangerously unchallenged throughout the film.
To be fair, Briski does acknowledge in the film that she’s not a social worker, yet she seems to forget that once she becomes invested in the kids’ lives. Though Briski is clearly a temporary presence in the children’s world—and though she comes from a different cultural background and does not fully understand the subtleties of their situation—throughout the film she seems to feel justified in trying to “rescue” the kids by pulling the young photographers away from their families for a life they know little about.
She sees getting the kids in boarding school as the first step to preventing them from becoming prostitutes themselves. But it’s hard for her to get them into the schools—either the schools don’t want the kids of prostitutes, or they demand that she jump through loopholes to enroll them. Curiously, Briski does not involve the kids’ parents in this process until she authoritatively informs them that their kids are expected to leave for boarding schools imminently. Is this because they are prostitutes and we are expected to assume they don’t care for their children?
The frustrations of trying to rescue the children mount for Briski, and towards the end of Born into Brothels, she is filmed in a taxi complaining over her cell phone, “I’ve done all that I can do…I’ve done all that I’m willing to do.” Avijit is sitting next to her, unaware of her admission.
Watching this, I felt compassion for Briski’s incredible efforts trying to help the kids, and I well understood her desire to do so. But as a youth worker I also found it troubling that someone can assume this kind of authority in a young person’s life knowing that she won’t always be able to support the kids on the path she sets them on. Yet the movie portrays Briski’s efforts to place the kids in schools as the actions of a savior, never exploring whether Briski’s assumption that she knew how to save the kids was correct or naïve.
In the end, Briski places four of the seven kids in schools. By the time the film was completed, only one of the four youth she had placed remained in school. I was left with many questions. Does Briski consider her work done and complete with these youth? How available is she to them today? Do we really understand the relationships these kids have with their mothers, the hopelessness of their lives, and their sadness? What did Briski learn about her attempts to save them? Would she do it again?
In the end, we should applaud Briski not for her attempts to “rescue” the youth, but for her understanding that young people possess so much ability to articulate their worlds and communicate their fears and hopes through art. Briski may be still learning about her limitations as a youth worker, but she does get how important it is to listen to kids’ perspectives, and how much the world can benefit from hearing those viewpoints—she founded a youth media nonprofit organization called Kids With Cameras. So however problematic the film is, Briski has clearly caught the youth bug. She also snagged an Oscar. Not bad.
Ken Ikeda is the founder and executive director of Youth Sounds, a media and arts organization in Oakland, California, serving youth ages 14-20 through programs in video and music production. He has worked the midnight-to-8-a.m. shift as a street outreach worker for the Department of Homeless Services in New York City, and has been a community organizer and an education policy analyst. He is a graduate of Columbia University, where he majored in anthropology, and a former doctoral candidate in Education Anthropology at Stanford University before taking an indefinite leave to begin Youth Sounds. The curriculum and principles of ethnography and storytelling in Youth Sounds are informed by his work and studies.
The winner of this year’s Best Documentary Oscar raises ethical questions for those in the youth media field.