This article investigates the contemporary phenomenon of “child media advocacy,” or the practice of “empowering” child subjects by providing them with media technologies as a means of self-representation. Tracing the genealogy of this practice to an older ethnographic tradition of “handing over the camera” to the native, or autoethnography, this article argues that the liberatory impulse of child media advocacy needs to be interrogated as a part of the legacy of harnessing media for turning deviant or dangerous types into productive social subjects. The centerpiece of the article is a reading of Born into Brothels, an award-winning film documenting the codirector and photojournalist Zana Briski's humanitarian project to emancipate the children of prostitutes in India by training them in photography and creating avenues for them to sell their own photographs of brothel life. A close reading of two autoethnographic photographs follows, which suggests that the visual rhetoric of immediacy that permeates and surrounds the film conceals a more complex set of transactions that draw on the enduring ethnographic mythology of the mimetic child to authenticate the project of the film. The article concludes by arguing that Born into Brothels puts to work the immaterial or affective labor of children in the production of cultural commodities as a humane and “empowering” alternative to coerced sex work. This move to mobilize the child as a new figure of economic promise indicates the vexed bonds that contemporary humanitarian discourses of media advocacy are forging with the affirmative economic imperatives of neoliberalism.
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Pooja Rangan; Immaterial Child Labor: Media Advocacy, Autoethnography, and the Case of Born into Brothels. Camera Obscura 1 December 2011; 25 (3 (75)): 143–177. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-2010-012
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