The Power of Imagination

Imagination Is Our Birthright

I recently saw the Academy Award-winning documentary film, Born Into Brothels, directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman. Briski, a London-based photographer, went to Calcutta and took up residence in a brothel in the redlight district. Her intention was to photograph the lives of the women working there.

But the children living in the brothel stole her heart - they were curious about her, interested in her photography, bright and full of life. As Briski got to know them, she saw that they were destined to join "the line" if girls, or make their way on the streets if they were boys.

Briski organized photography classes for the children, most of whom were between 8 and 13. The mothers and grandmothers granted permission for their children to attend, with a mixture of curiosity, cynicism and disinterest. Briski found cameras for the children to use and set about teaching them the fundamentals of composition and perspective.

The children used their cameras to document the life around them, in the crowded alleyways of the redlight district, in the twisting halls of their buildings, on the rooftops. Briski critiqued their photos in the class, helping them sharpen their creative abilities to capture their world as it appeared to them. The film shows the kids in a small room, hunched over contact sheets viewing their work through the magnifying lens. When Briski circled a shot for enlargement and printing, it was after energetic discussion in the class about the artfulness of the image.

Ultimately Briski arranged for the children's work to be displayed in India, New York, and London. The children went to some of the shows, seeing their work framed and hung in galleries, with crowds of well-dressed artlovers. They loved the attention they received, but the real energy of the film is in the enthusiasm of the children as they learned to view their world through a camera's lens and impart their own interpretation of what they saw.

The photos they took were filled with the people of their world, going about the daily business of survival. But many of their pictures took on a mythic quality, capturing something more than people and buildings and garbage. Their photographs were images of hope and wonder, joy and tragic loss, subtle beauties and stark ugliness. They were also an expression of the child's perspective: most were shot from about three feet from the ground, so the adults are captured from below, from the children's level. Often the camera is tilted so the world in the photograph is askew, playfully aslant. One haunting image features the ghostly figure of a small hand in the foreground: this was the result of a little sister sticking her hand in front of her brother's camera at just the moment he was taking a picture using the flash. But the result is: art.

Briski, seeing the intelligence and creativity of the children, sought opportunities for them, beyond the world of the brothel. With their parent's permission she was able to place some of them in boarding schools where they could continue their education. A moving segment of the film showed a reunion of the children, three years older. It was clear that their lives were forever changed by a gifted teacher who gave them tools and opportunities to express their imaginative powers.

The Power of Imagination

It is the power of the imagination to enable each person to transcend present reality, no matter how stark, deprived or "hopeless." Imagination generates hope - or more exactly, unleashes creative powers to transform reality into something beyond that which is currently visible. Children possess imagination naturally - unfortunately, rote learning and habituation into social roles supplant much of this.

This powerful film is a tribute to the power of imagination to transform lives beyond what seems possible. These children, of course, were lucky -- lucky to have a teacher appear who possessed great skill and compassion and determination to help them. But it is also true that imagination brings opportunities to us, which would pass by untaken without the enlivened ability to apprehend opportunity that imagination provides. "What if --?" is the language of imagination and possibility.

Imagination Asks: "What if - "

What if - the world is round and you can go East by sailing west?? What if - the power of nonviolence can bring a powerful Empire to defeat? What if - paying attention to ordinary dreams can unlock the royal road to the Unconscious? What if - an electric current is passed through a carbon filament, and it glows with a warm white light, dispelling darkness?

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