She’s dressed in red and yellow. Her shirt has exactly two buttons, white, and her face is full of both shadows and a sense of sorrow. She stares out at an ambiguous sun that is either setting or rising. We hear her voice speak her own language as yellow subtitles on the screen spell out, “The men who enter our building are not so good… They are drunk. They come inside and shout and swear.”
The shot changes and now we can actually see her talking. The background is dark. You see only her face and the yellow words: “The women ask me, ‘When are you going to join the line?’ They say it won’t be long.” She looks down. The screen transitions into a series of black-and-white photographs of people who don’t initially want to be seen, people who are “terrified of the camera” because so much of their lives in the red light district of Calcutta consist of illegal activities.
“Born Into Brothels,” a documentary from 2004, is about the children of that red light district. Zana Briski documented them and taught them about photography so that they could then document themselves (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/born-into-brothels/). They are people worth being seen and remembered, and they are not alone.
After reading Michelle Caswell’s “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation,” I decided to search for other attempts to document the lives of people who are normally left out of history books and official records, the people who have been marginalized and virtually excluded from history. I found myself entering an online world of street photography, documentaries, and archives, a world in which prostitutes and homeless people are as significant as the white men who dominated the textbooks that worked to construct my lens of seeing the world since I entered the public school system in kindergarten. Gone for me are the days of honoring Christopher Columbus as a flawless hero who discovered a whole new continent. Here now are the days of seeking out the stories of present Native American communities, how they’ve been affected by cruelties of the past, and how they will exist and change in the future.
As more and more communities like the South Asian Americans that Caswell describes are able to digitize and record their pasts and their presents online, more and more people become aware of this shift from a history that is presented to us and a history that we can all help to create. The change is gradual, but it is there, and as history changes, perhaps so will the power dynamics associated with the control and consumption of information.