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Childhood Innocence and the Emergency Imaginary

The following academic paper is a criticism of the film Born Into Brothels (which can be watched by clicking the image above) as a form of visual ethnography.

In this paper, I will define the term emergency allochronism and explore how the child subjects of the humanitarian documentary film Born Into Brothels embody it. This film represents a semi-autoethnographic project that is complicated by traditional binaries of ethnographic representation. While anthropologists attempt to represent the lives of their subjects through ethnographic films, autoethnographic projects focus on reflexivity, allowing typically marginalized subjects to represent themselves and reverse the binaries that have historically played a part in their oppression or misrepresentation. In Born Into Brothels, director and photographer Zana Briski originally takes on the role of the anthropologist, attempting to represent the lives of the women through her own lens. However, the project expands when Briski meets the children who also live in the brothels. Briski begins teaching the children photography and asks them to take photographs of their surroundings in an attempt to “see this world through their eyes”.

The product of Briski’s autoethnographic initiative for her child subjects is twofold. First are the photographs produced by the children, which were then sold in order to help finance their educations. Second is the film itself, which chronicles Briski’s experience teaching the children photography, but also doubles as a traditional ethnographic documentary that shows the lives of the children. The film Born Into Brothels will be the focus of this paper. Though the film incorporates self-reflexive interviews with its subjects and displays the photographs taken by the children, it remains bound by the problems of traditional ethnographic films, namely, allochronism. I argue that the film fails to reverse ethnographic binaries merely because its focus on children enforces allochronistic mediations of its subjects. By “allochronistic mediations,” I mean to refer to the way the film’s stylistic and dialectical choices activate an allochronistic understanding of its subjects. Allochronism, a term coined by Johannes Fabian, refers to the tendency of anthropologists to place the subjects of anthropological discourse in a temporality other than their own. I will discuss how allochronism becomes linked to the emergency imaginary in the context of this film. I will also discuss how innocence is inherent to representations of children in anthropological discourse. I will explore the film’s reliance on visuality and how its themes of prostitution further activate ontologies of childhood by focusing of issues of gender and sexuality.

In his book “Time and the Other,” Johannes Fabian argues that in “anthropology’s temporal discourse…there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical, a political act” (Fabian, 1). He defines anthropology’s ontology of the Other as being dependent on relationships of time. Fabian calls this relationship a “denial of coevalness,” or “allochronism,” which he defines as “a persistent and systematic tendency to place referents of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse” (Fabian, 31). Allochronism is one of the binaries of traditional ethnographic discourse that autoethnographic and self-reflexive initiatives attempt to reverse and distort.

The temporality of the other is typically understood only in the concepts of a “present” and a “past,” where the producer of anthropological discourse exists in the present, and the referents of anthropology exist in the past. However, the “emergency imaginary” is another form of time that is often applied solely to those deemed other. The term was coined by anthropologist Craig Calhoun, who writes: “…the emergency is a sudden, unpredictable event emerging against a background of normalcy, causing suffering or danger and demanding urgent response” (Calhoun, 30). The emergency imaginary is typically evoked in humanitarian crises: anything from natural disasters to AIDS outbreaks to genocide. The emergency imaginary is a new temporality of the other, one that is not bound by the internal culture of the other, but rather by circumstances outside of the other.

How does Born Into Brothels activate the emergency imaginary when the “emergency” that the film attempts to save its subject from is not concurrent with Calhoun’s definition of emergency? The problem that the film attempts to solve is literally that children are “born into brothels”. Briski’s initiative is not attempting to save the children from something that affects them currently, but rather to prevent them from entering into a life that she believes is unsuitable for them. The goal of Briski’s project and film is not to represent her subject’s lives, but to help them remain “children” in the Western definition of the word. The film is actively engaged in maintaining the potential of its subjects. The emergency of Born Into Brothels is the impending point in time when the child subjects of the film will become completely corrupted by the life of prostitution that surrounds them.

I argue that the form of allochronism activated by the film is inherently linked to the temporality of emergency. I call this “emergency allochronism,” which points to the way that traditional ethnography speeds up time for the subjects of anthropological discourse when their surroundings are understood within the emergency imaginary. In emergency allochronism, the lives of anthropological subjects are not represented in stagnation or an ahistorical past, but in terms of a rapidly approaching, politicized future. Emergency allochronism is most likely to affect our mediations of child subjects because of the sharp contrast between innocence and corruption that is created by Western narratives of childhood.

The function of visuality in Born Into Brothels enforces the assumption of innocence on its child subjects.  In the opening credits, the camera focuses in on the eyes of children as they take in the sights of a brothel. They watch women undress, put on make-up, and stand outside the brothels, presumably soliciting sex. This moment in the beginning of the film cements visuality as an important sense for the film’s subjects. Similarly, Briski explains that her goal in working with the children became, “to teach them and to see this world through their eyes [emphasis mine]” (Born Into Brothels). Framing vision as the dominant sense allows the film to use the eyes, photography, and that which is seen to highlight or hide corruption of childhood innocence.

Briski’s desire “to see this world through their eyes” activates a humanitarian trope of childhood described by Liisa Malkki as “children as seers of truth”. Malkki writes that children are often hailed as “small humans with the capacity to see through ‘barriers’ of culture and nationality, race and class (Malkki, 67). With the assumption that the ability to see through barriers of culture is an asset, the visual focus of Born Into Brothels removes its subjects from their sociopolitical surroundings. This is exactly what the film attempts to do, for it also relies on the argument that childhood is a universal experience that should not affected by political realities. Emergency allochronism holds the threat of corruption of innocence through a politicized future over the heads of the children in Born Into Brothels. The film links children with cameras (as a visual medium) to emphasize their ability to “see truth,” and to recognize the universal childhood that they are missing out on.

Briski’s project to teach the children photography also emphasizes visual epistemologies of truth. The fact that the photographs were taken by the film’s subjects within their world assumes that the photographs reveal the reality of the subjects’ lives. The photographs taken by the children, which are shown throughout the film, act as an anchor into childhood. Because the photographs must be taken, then developed, then viewed by the children, the time that elapses before the children can view their own photographs could be the difference between their innocence and their corruption. In the film, the photographs, which naively depict friends, siblings, bedrooms, and animals, are proof that the children’s innocence has remained intact since their last roll of film. The photographs prove that they are still “seers of truth” (Malkki, 67).

When innocence becomes mandatory in considering anthropological subjects who are also children, these discourse create the ways in which children are allowed to be autonomous subjects. Erica Burman describes the way in which a focus on innocence for child subjects coerces them into passivity. Burman writes:

“Alongside the dominant cultural distribution of innocence and experience… runs a parallel discourse of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ children. Children who work are unnatural, as are children who do not live within recognizable cross-generational family units…. If the price of innocence is passivity, then the cost of resourcefully dealing with conditions of distress and deprivation is to be pathologised. Notions of knowledge and responsibility are so intertwined that we seem to find it difficult to treat children who ‘know’ as children, since their innocence has been compromised” (Burman, 244).

Burman illustrates the relationship between innocence and potentiality. I define potential as a form of active innocence. Children carry an assumed innocence, yet their potential is not inherent: is earned by avoiding compromising their innocence through knowledge.

The marriage between mediations of innocence and allochronism are described by Liisa Malkki, who writes: “The attribution of innocence to children suggests two things about innocence itself: first, that it is allochronic, somehow timeless, innocence; and second, that innocence is a form of not-knowing, of not being ‘worldly’” (Malkki, 63). In Malkki’s argument, the allochronism of innocence is not that it is located “in the past,” but that it is located in a stagnant passing of time.  Traditional allochronism assumes that children do not learn from experience, but remain innocent merely by virtue of being children. When placed in the context of the emergency imaginary, the allochronism of childhood innocence becomes threatened by a focus on the future. In Born Into Brothels, this traditional allochronism and the emergency allochronism I describe come into conflict with one another. Allochronism expects the child subjects to represent a passive innocence, where emergency allochronism becomes engaged in the active protection of potential against a rapidly approaching politicized future.

The child subjects of Born Into Brothels are aware that their innocence is part of their potential as human beings. During many interviews in the film, the children communicate to viewers that they remain mostly ignorant to the details of the prostitution that surrounds them. Reflecting on her mother, Tapasi says: “I know what she does for work and I feel bad talking about these things. Shanti explains, “In our room there is a rod and from there we close the curtain. That way we don’t see anything that’s going on.” While the threat of prostitution is the main source of corruption for the child subjects, even the knowledge of sexuality has the potential to corrupt the innocence that creates the image of an innocent child subject.

Malkki argues “from this pedestal, it is nearly impossible for actual children to act in the world as political, historical subjects” (Malkki, 79). Rather than granting the children any agency over their situation, Born Into Brothels enforces the idea that their innocence and potential must be guarded and that they can only be saved from their situation by others. Similarly, Malkki writes that while “figurations of the child and the human are putatively universal, they are in fact both culturally Western and quite Christian” (Malkki, 59). By framing the children of Born Into Brothels in the Western universalism of childhood innocence, the film erases and rejects the political and historical realities surrounding its subjects.

In the film, potentiality is almost solely focused on the girls. Erica Burman notes: “…little girls are the quintessential child victims. Femininity and childish dependence are here collapsed to evoke sympathy. This reinforces assumptions of children’s passivity, and reproduces patriarchal relations, both within and between donor and recipient countries” (Burman, 242). The female subjects of Born Into Brothels function in the way Burman describes. Their femininity is often played up in order to evoke sympathy. For example, there is an interesting moment in the film when one of the boys, Gour, begins speaking for his female friends. We see footage of Gour playfully tugging on Puja’s hair or chasing her around, while he reflects: “I like the way Puja behaves… I wish I could take Puja away from here” (Born Into Brothels). In these scenes, Gour creates both a patriarchal relationship and an almost romantic narrative between him and his female friends. In both of their functions, Gour’s reflections reproduce concepts of femininity and childish dependence for the girl subjects, emphasizing their passivity.

However, the representation of the young girls in Born Into Brothels is further complicated by the sexual nature of the threat against them.  The active struggle to maintain their potentiality is represented as futile as it faces something so inevitably corruptive. Briski narrates: “One of the girls was already married off at age eleven. Another one was forced into prostitution at age fourteen.… They have absolutely no opportunity without education”. Briski’s statement suggests that once a girl is married or becomes a prostitute, she has lost her fight against sexual corruption and can no longer be saved. The narrative created about Suchitra, who is eleven and one of Briski’s oldest students, also represents the futility of the struggle against sexual corruption. Puja says about Suchitra: “I know about her family…she has pressures on her. All the girls in Suchitra’s house are in the line…. Suchitra’s aunt will put her in the line because she’ll make money on her.” Gour also says “Suchitra’s mother is dead, but her aunt wants to send her to Bombay to work ‘in the line.’ She’s talked to me about it many times and asked me not to tell anyone.” Finally, Suchitra gets to speak for herself. Someone behind the camera asks her if she sees a solution to all of this. Suchitra hesitates and sadly answers, “No” (Born Into Brothels).

Suchitra’s dramatically framed yet simple statement embodies the passive innocence and lack of agency that is afforded to her as a subject. As a young woman being represented through emergency allochronism and being faced with the threat of sexual corruption and prostitution, Suchitra is not allowed to reflect on much else about her life. The swift movement of time that emergency allochronism creates narrows the amount of time a subject has before they are corrupted. In Born Into Brothels, this fact contributes to the lack of agency afforded to the child subjects. As the threat against them looms, the solution — which in Born Into Brothels is ‘education’—becomes the only thing worth thinking or talking about. This mediation, affected by the temporality of emergency, contributes to the failures of the film as an autoethnographic project because it does not allow its subjects to represent their own lives.

The failures of Born Into Brothels as an autoethnographic film highlight some of the prevailing tropes that exist in humanitarian narratives. Evoking the emergency imaginary is often a very political move. When it interacts with anthropological discourse of representation to create emergency allochronism, the results can be detrimental to ethical representation and self-reflexivity. Similarly, the focus on child subjects within the emergency imaginary enforces very specific understandings of childhood and innocence. I have proved how representation through these ideas failed in the case of Born Into Brothels, but we must be aware how the child subject functions politically in other forms of media, particularly when gender and sexuality play such an important role in the establishment of the problem. Child subjects function uniquely in ethnographic films, representing potentiality as well as a collective humanity. We must be wary, however, of how such representations limit agency and self-reflexivity. The connections between the assumed innocence and potential of a child and the universal threat of an emergency are harmful representations not only of children, but also of emergency situations. They assume that corruption is not reversible, and that only subjects with potential are subjects worth ‘saving’.

 Works Cited

Born Into Brothels. Dir. Briski, Zana and Ross Kauffman. 2005. Film.

Burman, Erica. Innocents Abroad: Western Fantasies of Childhood and the Iconography of Emergencies. Disasters Vol. 18 No. 3. (1994): pp. 238 – 251. Print.

Calhoun, Craig. “The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)order,” Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi, eds., Contemporary States of Emergency. The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books (2011): pp. 18 – 39. Print.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Print.

Malkki, Liisa. Children, Humanity, and the Infantilization of Peace. In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care. Duke University Press (2010) Print.

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Filed under children, feminism, gender, human rights, sexuality, social justice