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The stunning images that emerged from Born into Brothels landed at Sotheby's for auction and became the artwork for an Amnesty International calendar

The camera barely keeps up with a small child running up a stairwell, thin legs flaying around blind corners, until the stairs lead to a cramped room where a family lives, except when the mother needs the space for work.

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Hidden deep inside a brothel in one of Calcutta's red-light districts, these stairwells and backrooms are home to the children of Born into Brothels. It's here, where the future can seem bleak and inescapable, that the film's small group of kids took the photographs that reveal a disturbing, yet vivid and even sometimes beautiful world.

Their remarkable images and stories form the spine of a documentary that has given international attention to the plight of Calcutta's most stigmatized families; and the film is helping these children escape a likely future of prostitution and drug dealing.

This was the outcome of a circuitous journey taken by 38-year-old London-born photojournalist Zana Briski. To say the least, she is someone who follows her instincts. Despite a background in biology and a master's degree in theology, Briski wound up studying documentary photography in New York.

Briski first travelled to India a decade ago to document women's issues, from female infanticide to life in the red-light districts. "I felt very drawn to India," she says, "but not because it was somewhere I had wanted to go for a long time. Literally everything was saying, go to India. I quit my job and the next day I was on a plane."

She spent close to five months in the country in 1995 and returned two years later to continue her photography work. On the latter trip, she continues, "someone took me to the specific red-light district [that appears in the film] and I was completely blown away. I knew that was where I needed to be."

Two more years passed before Briski got close enough to the families in one of the brothels to be allowed to live there. "I absolutely fell in love with the women and wanted to live with them, wanted to really understand what their lives were like," she says.

But the situation was constantly difficult and frightening. Cameras are utterly taboo. Prostitution is illegal; trafficking in drugs is illegal; and yet everyone, from those within the political system and non-governmental organizations to the police and the pimps, "have a hand in it," Briski says. Shame and stigma have ruled out any chance for the women to escape their circumstances. And even after Briski gained their trust, some of the women refused to be photographed.

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Not the children. Ranging in age from 10 to 14, they quickly latched on to Briski. She began by giving a group of children point-and-shoot cameras and taught them the basics, from composition to picture editing. Briski felt "a particular karma" with the kids, and she has remained with them for nearly three years.

"There were more children that wanted to be a part of the class," she continues, "and I actually taught another class as well. But these were basically mafia kids. It was very difficult to affect their lives, and I ended up dropping that class, because the mafia was putting pressure on me."

Fear and intimidation surrounded Briski, particularly while filming. "I was scared all the time. [But]for me, the scary thing was to lose access [to the children]and having to shut down."

The documentary doesn't linger on the lives of the adults in the brothel, but it does show the children fending off continual verbal abuse and violent shouting matches between the families. "Those fights could erupt at any moment. The camera could have been smashed at any moment. We could have been beaten up. I could have been arrested," says Briski, who lived off credit-card loans to keep the project going.

"It was a very tenuous situation in that place," adds Ross Kauffman, 37, a documentary editor and cameraman who collaborated on the film. At the outset, Kauffman, who was involved romantically with Briski, was skeptical about joining the project. The couple lacked funds and there were obvious risks inherent in walking through a red-light district with a camera. But when Briski sent preliminary footage to Kauffman in New York, he was immediately convinced. Once in Calcutta, the women and children instantly warmed to Kauffman on the strength of their close rapport with Briski.

Ultimately, the filmmakers shot 170 hours of footage in Bengali, all of which had to be translated. They promised the families that the documentary wouldn't be shown in India, although on their most recent trip to Calcutta, the children had a chance to see it. Some of them laughed hysterically, but Kochi, age 10 in the film and one of the youngest, found it difficult to watch her life as it had been. She now studies at a boarding school.

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Briski and Kauffman were also in Calcutta when the film's Oscar nomination for best documentary was announced. "The kids were very excited, jumping up and down on the bed and screaming," Briski says.

The whole project was a case of "simply about being responsible and responding to what is around me," Briski says. "I didn't go there to save kids. I went there as a photographer . . . and the children approached me to learn photography. I tried to help the women. I tried many, many things for the women, and it proved almost impossible to change the system, because it's such a tight structure. Hopefully by educating the children, some of them will go back to the red-light district and they'll actually change things."

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