The “Rescue” Dilemma

brothels150.jpgI 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 Oscars—and 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.

9 thoughts on “The “Rescue” Dilemma”

  1. Great article and will definitely go and see the film.
    Anyone who has worked with young people at the ‘sharp-end’ of life will know how easy it is to become embrolled into thinking we can ‘save’ them. I suppose it’s human nature to protect (and rightly so) but as you outlined, caution must be taken…developing systems and projects which create opportunities for these young people to make informed decisions is all that we can really do, and usually, that is enough to make a positive difference.

  2. Great article, but it would be helpful to include information about how to access the film!
    How do we?
    Karen Monroe

  3. Great article Ikeda but any way you cut it the film was a blatant explotation of the children. Zena’a (the film maker) racist behaviour is masked by her liberal white guilt. I for one don’t buy any of it.
    White, rich people who want to do something for poor brown people should think more about the global economic system that is structured to benefit the wealthy and their populace at the expense of poor.
    We as rich nations/people (comparably speaking) are not willing to make the sacifices necessary for a more equitable and sustainable society. Giving a few cameras and trying to get a few kids in school is not going to solve the problem. Until we make fundamental changes in the way we live, poor families in countries all over the world have no choice but to survive by any means necessary including prostitution. As for Zena, she benifeted from her film in the same way that a sweatshop owner benefits from employing poor cheap labour. Sure the kids got something out of it but so does the labourer (a few cents to feed their family after a full day of work). Does it change their fundamental situation…no.
    Don’t go around the world giving cameras, challenge your government and change your personal behaviour (stop buying products that don’t give people living wages).

  4. Hi. An intriguing article. I saw the film when it first came out last year, and thought it was great. But I don’t completely agree with the author’s assesement about Zana Briski forcing her privilege and expectations on these kids. It’s been a while since I saw the film, but I remember that it was quite clear in saying that the extreme caste system and gender oppression in Calcutta means that the kids of the red-light district are doomed to stay in the red-light district, and furthermore that the daughters of prostitutes will grow up to be prostitutes themselves. To me, and it seems to Zana Briski as well, that’s a zero-sum game. I can see how Briski comes off as a “white knight” swooping in to “save” the little, poor brown kids. But their photography gave them a glimpse into a life of creativity and expression that not only they had never experienced before, but didn’t even have in their heads as an OPTION. And if the photography could help them get into boarding schools and escape a life of poverty and exploitation, then as a human being how could Briski NOT push for that (and keep in mind, it wasn’t an option of boarding vs. public schools. Some of the parents didn’t want their kids going to school or were ambivalent about it; they knew there was no hope for them or wanted them home to clean/take care of other kids while they worked). So the choice was getting them out or losing them to the district forever. That’s a different situation than a family that CHOOSES to sleep in a car vs. going to a homeless shelter. The young boy, Damon, still attended school and still has a chance at a prosperous future. It will be a difficult road, but it’s not a near impossibility as it would be for the kids in “Born Into Brothels.” Also, I think it’s presumptious to assume that Briski did NOT talk to the parents about having the kids attend boarding school. I remember one girl’s mother forbidding her from going to the school, and the girl defies her and goes anyway. Also, we don’t know what scenes were left on the cutting room floor. Finally, I’m not sure what Adonis’ agenda is, but I don’t think you throw out the baby with the bathwater: meaning, yes, we need to fight to end poverty, racism and sexual exploitation of women in India and throughout the world. But that’s a tall order to wipe out thousands of years of oppression. Meanwhile, do we leave kids to languish in despair for a larger cause? Even if the kids end up staying in the district, they had a taste of life that many of us with education and privilege take for granted: the ability to express themselves and capture beautiful moments of joy and pain that can never be taken away from them. Personally, I feel that Zana Briski, and others who do that type of work, should be rewarded for giving gifts of themselves like that (and the money made from the sales of their photos go into a scholarship fund to send the kids to school). P.S.: With all due respect, I have to point out the irony of a gentlemen who attended Columbia and Stanford “calling out” Briski for imposing her privilege on these kids.

  5. Last week I ambivalently joined Netflix (unsure what it will do to small less “popular” documentaries and the use of media with educational audiences and as an activist tool) and put this movie at the top of the list. I bookmarked Ken’s article and was glad to read it after seeing the film, which made me rather uncomfortable. I wish the movie could have raised, within it some of these issues this discussion is raising so well.
    I’ve spent a lot of time doing video and photography with teens in Los Angeles and Alaska. I too am a white artist who, as an Alaska Native activist I worked with told me pointedly and often, comes from resources. I’ve also worked in an Alaskan village and had a non-Native school superintendent say something to me like “don’t think anything you do with these kids will change their lives…they will never leave this village.” I guess I never thought I’d save the kids, push them to go to Stanford or Yale, or run for president, but I watched the students see their own potential and see that they had a voice. They taught me a lot too and so did their families. How to evaluate the results (another issue that youth workers and project coordinators run into) I’m not sure, but the dialogue about doing this work needs to continue.
    Documentaries like Born into Brothels are something more of the so called mainstream gets to see, or the folks who go might watch this film in a theater or rent it from Netflix. So a film like this could be a tool to raise awareness that can perhaps provoke people to change their personal behavior and challenge their government. I don’t think it was crafted or distributed in a way to do this, but it could have been.

  6. I did also wonder about Briski’s project, the imposition of outside forces that would be hard to sustain. But the filmmaker did seem sincere. I trusted her impulse. So, I went to the web after viewing the movie recently (10/12/05) to see how the children had fared. As it turns out Briski’s instincts were good. Perhaps not a professional social worker at the start, she found her way. Consider the follow-up projects in the excerpts from the “Kids with Cameras” website:
    Kids with Cameras is a non-profit organization that teaches the art of photography to marginalized children in communities around the world, committed to furthering their general education beyond photography either by linking with local organizations to provide scholarships or by developing our own schools with a focus on leadership and the arts.
    Kids with Cameras’ upcoming priority is to further empower the children of Calcutta’s red light district by creating a school and campus specifically for them.
    Zana created Kids with Cameras to inspire like-minded artists and photographers to share their passions and talents with marginalized children around the globe.
    Kids with Cameras is committed to distributing the art produced in a way that best reflects the energy, individuality, and love generated from each workshop. Proceeds from the sale of any artwork always goes back to the children for their education and well-being.
    Learn more about current workshops:
    » HAITI
    » CAIRO
    Born Into Brothels: The Book
    All proceeds from book sales support Kids with Cameras in fulfilling its mission.
    » Can I conduct a workshop?
    » How do you choose the places you go?
    » How can I help?
    » Where is KWC based?
    » What happens after a workshop?
    » How can I get a copy of the book?
    » Where are the kids now?

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