Notes on the Culture

1218555624Every Tuesday, Matthew Reed Baker will offer his thoughts on the arts and culture scene. This week: The Chase Gallery’s new photo exhibit displays work by the kids from Born Into Brothels; Plus: China’s dazzling Olympic opening ceremonies.

Fine arts, philanthropy, and the Oscars are all coming together at the Chase Gallery on Newbury Street, with its new photography exhibit, “Kids with Cameras,” that opened Friday. The show has its roots in the documentary Born into Brothels, filmed by Ross Kauffman and photographer Zana Briski, which won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2005.

Justly lauded, the film grew out of Briski’s attempts to film the prostitution industry in Calcutta. While the red-light domain in that impoverished city protected its secrecy, Kauffman and Briski found the boys and girls in the neighborhood friendly and inquisitive. As the children of generations of prostitutes, their future was uncertain, most likely destined to the same fate as their forbears.

Briski gave the children cameras and asked them to record their lives, and the resulting film was a success—not because it pushed human misery in your smug Western face, but because these kids are treated as real people, fully engaged and creative. Since then, Briski has since set up a nonprofit to promote their work—prints are available for sale—and to raise money for a group home for the kids. The program has since expanded to other countries, with workshops in Cairo, Haiti, and Jerusalem.

Well, okay, so that’s well and good for for the soul, but how are the pictures?

I, for one, am a fan of 13-year-old Gour‘s work. (All ages cited are from the time they took the photos; they’re all about six to eight years older now.) A serious-looking boy in a Shaktimaan shirt, Gour captures street scenes with jagged angles and sharp contrasts. You can feel the energy and mystery of the Calcutta streets through his tight focus on details. His photo, “Running,” is the signature image of the exhibit (see above). Unfortunately, Kids with Cameras has since lost contact with him.

Another star is Avijit, 11, who uses the blur of motion and the full depth of field to create evocative images of a day at the beach, flying a kite from tenement rooftops, and his own stern self portrait on a garbage-laden street. Avijit was the central child of the film for his talent, which got him invited to the Amsterdam World Press Photo Foundation in 2002, and for the tragic story of his murdered mother and addict father.

But perhaps the images that captured me most were by Kochi, 10. Her “Bengali Moon” is an odd take on a fashion spread, featuring a woman/girl (it’s hard to tell) standing on grimy pavement in a flowing yellow dress, dwarfed by tall fronds and a ghostly full moon in a gray sky. Her portrait of young Babai splashed with red and purple paint—presumably for the Hindu festival, Holi—should be festive, but by setting him in a dank interior, he seems a fluorescent pint-size machinist.

Perhaps I was drawn to Kochi’s work because she joins the ranks of first-time photographers everywhere that indulge in shooting one’s own feet. In a seemingly intimate, playful photo, she makes herself look small and vulnerably human: her painted toes and the pink hem of her dress nearly pushed out of the frame by an impassive expanse of cold blue institutional tile.

Of course, when hung on Chase’s pristine white walls, these 17 photos by kids suddenly become “art,” and one shouldn’t be too facile or condescending when approaching them. Potential analysis aside, the images impress beyond giving you a glimpse into Calcutta’s backstreets. The only complaint: I would have liked a bit more information on the children and their subjects; the exhibit just begs further inquiry. Helpfully though, Chase pastes a thumbnail photo of each child by his or her work, and the gallery runs Born into Brothels continuously on an iMac.

Of course, you can always learn more by watching the documentary, which Chase is also selling, donating the proceeds to the Kids with Cameras organization. The exhibit runs only through August 27, but the project will return with a splash in a couple months. Come October 2, Tufts will screen Born into Brothels, hosted by a special guest, one of Calcutta’s now-famous photographers, Avijit. He’s 19 these days, and thanks to a scholarship, he’s a senior at a Salt Lake City private school. It’s just impossible to quibble with that.

Beautiful Beijing bombast: It’s also impossible not to mention how much I love the Olympics—truly, deeply, madly—and I get particularly jazzed about the Opening Ceremonies. Everyone knew that China would put on the Great Wall of Halftime Shows this weekend, and by golly, these ceremonies didn’t disappoint. But despite an occasional moment of kitsch—flying, “dreaming” children on wires give me Spielbergian willies—it was a masterfully abstract and breathtakingly graceful ballet-spectacle of Chinese history.

But most intriguing of all was the man who ran the show, opening ceremonies commander-in-chief, Zhang Yimou. Film fans know Zhang from his early ’90s masterpieces Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), both sexually open films that cast a critical eye on traditional mores and both of which were praised worldwide, just as they were being banned at home.

But in the mid-’90s, his work became lighter and more populist, and this decade his style and subject matter has completely changed. He’s been making big-budget action-adventure films such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), which were just as visually arresting as his earliest work. Along with their mainstream appeal, which has made Zhang China’s most famous cinematic export, these later films are far less penetrating and have, shall we say, a not-so-faint whiff of nationalism.

Still, it’s surprising that China’s erstwhile bad-boy auteur got the nod for the biggest stage production ever in the history of man. At least the Xinhua News Agency reported that Zhang was appropriately humble at the post-ceremony press conference: “I regret many things, many details of this performance, many things that I could have done better….For example, there are performers who were injured. I blame myself for that. It might well have been avoided if I had given more detailed instructions.”

Whatever, Commander Zhang. Xinhua also reported that the event featured 22,000 people, 15,000 costumes, and 43,000 fireworks, so methinks he’s a little too hard on himself, whatever the reason. As for me, my only regret is that I didn’t tape the damn thing, cuz I could watch it over and over.

Image entitled, Running, by Gour used by permission by the Chase Gallery