It was a surreal moment.
Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman stood nervously on stage Sunday, surrounded by the glitter of Hollywood, as their documentary about India's most destitute children, Born Into Brothels, was proclaimed the winner of an Academy Award.
Worlds away, the subject of that documentary - a group of children from the notorious red-light district in Calcutta - clamored around a television, watching their Auntie Zana and Uncle Kauffman grasp Hollywood's greatest honor.
"They were screaming," said former Sun photographer Briski, 38. "They're just really happy. It's a very empowering thing for them to receive positive attention because their whole life they've just had negative attention. Or no attention at all."
All that has dramatically changed since the release of the documentary, which traces Briski's experience teaching photography to a group of children living in a brothel. It opens today at the Charles Theatre.
The children - all but one is now involved in some type of schooling - have had images of themselves beamed across the world, and their photography is earning money that will be set aside to help pay for their continuing education.
While the documentary has received glowing reviews from most U.S. critics, some of the Indian media - as well as postings on South Asian Web servers - have criticized it as patronizing and individualistic.
Briski plays a significant role in the documentary and ends up becoming a powerful force in the children's lives, getting them accepted into boarding schools and persuading their parents that this is the best thing for them.
She dismisses such criticisms, noting that she and Kauffman are still in constant contact with the children and have raised money to educate them through college.
"I connected with the women immediately," said Briski of their mothers. "They trusted me. They kept asking me for help."
Briski and Kauffman are now raising money to build a school in Calcutta for other children from the brothels. They are also expanding their photography classes to children in other countries.
"This is all about empowerment," she said. "I believe in the power of photography and the power of art to transform lives."
A British-born photographer now living in New York, Briski made her first trip to India in January 1995, just one day after quitting her job as a photographer at The Sun.
She worked at The Sun for about nine months, a period where her greatest memory involves a $400-a-month "amazing" apartment in Mount Vernon.
Briski went to Calcutta for five months, returning to Baltimore to work as director of photography for Baltimore magazine for six months before leaving for New York.
Two years later she went back to Calcutta and began her odyssey in the Sonagachi district, initially intending to document the lives of the women who lived there. Once there, she found herself surrounded by the only group of people drawn to her desire to record: the children.
And so she gave them point-and-shoot cameras and began a photography class, which eventually evolved into the more ambitious project of getting the children into schools and out of the path of prostitution.
While the award-winning documentary ends on a cautionary note - the fate of the children is not clear - Kauffman and Briski say all but one are enrolled in some type of schooling.
Ten-year-old Kochi is depicted in the movie as a shy, insecure girl saying wistfully, "If I got an education, I wonder what I could become?"
Kochi, now 12, is enrolled in boarding school and speaks fluent English.
"She wants to run the school we're building, and she will," Briski said.
Only one of the children remains a question mark. Shanti, now 13, ran away from her school and is back in the brothel. She is not in contact with Kauffman and Briski.
And unless they can get through to her, they fear that she will end up as a prostitute soon, entering "the line," the unavoidable fate of the thousands of children born and destined to live in a world where they have no choice and no hope.