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“Me, I’m a Camera”


Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo — The last time I was back in the U.S.A., everyone was talking about "change." Change seemed to mean electing Barack Obama president and thereby bringing all Americans together in blissful agreement. But real change isn’t like that. Didn’t the guy who’s got the job now promise to be a "uniter"? Real change has content and direction. It’s driven by courageous people unafraid to speak up, even — or perhaps especially — when it’s risky.

Anyway, there are plenty of Americans I’ll never agree with, so I’m in self-imposed exile in Africa where I work with women who teach me a lot about real change and the risks involved in going for it. The women I work with live in the aftermath of civil wars — in the midst of a continuing war on women that’s acted out in widespread sexual exploitation, rape, and wife beating. They’ve had enough.

As a volunteer with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), I go from country to country, running a simple little project dreamed up by the IRC’s Gender-Based Violence unit. (GBV is the gender-neutral term for what I still call VAW: Violence Against Women.) The project — dubbed A Global Crescendo: Women’s Voices from Conflict Zones — is meant to give women a chance to document their daily lives, their problems, their consolations and joys. It’s meant to give them time and space to talk together and come up with their own agenda for change.

Digital cameras are the tool. I arrive with them and lend them to women, most of whom have never seen a camera before. I teach them to point and shoot — only that — and then I turn them loose to snap what they will. I ask them to bring me some photos of their problems and their blessings. They work in teams, two or three women sharing a camera and very nervous at first. (Some women actually shake.) It takes the whole team to snap the first photos: one holds the camera, another points, another shoots. The teamwork they build is a step to solidarity.

Once a week for four or five weeks these teams get together — some 10 to 15 women in all — to look at their photos and talk about why they shot the things they did. For most of these women, whose lives are consumed by endless chores, this is a rare chance to sit and talk — really talk — with their neighbors. Most of them are non-literate. They don’t have television. Few have radio. Whatever news they get comes largely from their husbands — and husbands often tell them nothing, except what to do. Excluded from public life, they have no say in the decisions of men who determine everything from issues of sexuality and childbearing to matters of war and "justice." Even at home, they’re never asked their opinion, never encouraged to make a decision about anything. For such women, real conversation with other women invariably proves a revelation. 

For me — listening in, asking questions — it’s like the old days of the women’s movement in the U.S. and the informal consciousness-raising get-togethers that blew the collective mind of my generation. Now a senior citizen, I have the privilege of surfing another wave of feminism, a distant continent away.

What Women See

What do they talk about, these women struggling to survive, to make a life for themselves and their children in countries shattered by the wars of "big men"? It depends on where you are. In Ivory Coast, village women talk about having too much backbreaking work to do, while men do very little. In Liberia, urban women talk about not having enough work to do to earn the money to keep their husbands (who do very little) from straying. In Sierra Leone, they talk about the problems of war widows who can’t support their children or send them to school or save their young girls from sexual exploitation. In the Democratic Republic of Congo they talk about the problems of gang-raped women, repudiated by their husbands, unable to bear children, many literally ripped apart, never to be made whole again. In all these countries, simple questions quickly come up: Is this fair? Is it just?

Snapping pictures, women see what a lifetime of experience already tells them: that men run the world, the country, the province, the village, the home. In these lands, men of all persuasions have waged disastrous wars — most lasting more than a decade, one (in the Congo) still unofficially going on — characterized by unspeakable atrocities. Even many men will admit that they’ve made a terrible mess of things. In all these lands, when armed men stopped shooting and called it "peace," they continued to assault and rape and murder women.

The pattern of assaulting women, once adopted as a tactic of war, has become a habit with ex-combatants. Civilians have adopted it, too. In the Congo, rapists now target little girls. One village women’s group I work with in South Kivu Province has reported five rapes in the last month of girls younger than nine, the most recent, a six-year-old by the pastor of her church. So any time women begin to talk — really talk — about their lives, and the conspicuously different lives of men, the word "justice" is bound to come up, even if the conversation concerns only the seemingly trivial (though fundamental) question of who fetches the water and who enjoys the bath. 

The women to whom I lend cameras take a startling number of photos of physical violence against women: men beating women in the house, the yard, the street, the market place. Men throwing women to the ground. Men wielding sticks and tree branches and brooms. Acts of violence intended to punish women for things they’ve done or left undone, or to force them to do things they haven’t the will or the strength to do. These are acts of violence intended to control lives. Women can easily take these photos because men feel free to beat women anywhere, anytime, without fear of interruption or disapproval. War set the precedent.

Women take many photos of abandoned women, often pregnant, with their children — like the photo of a penniless young woman with three tiny children living in the open on the outskirts of a village. This image is deeply troubling in ways not obvious to an outsider. Most West African women feed and clothe themselves and their children by working their farms, selling produce in the market, making things for sale or trade. But the house still belongs to the man, together with everything in it and the land it stands upon. To be abandoned is to become homeless. The threat of abandonment is what coerces women to endure all other forms of abuse.

Women take pictures of economic violence, too. In Ivory Coast, for instance, a woman photographed the family’s cocoa crop: her husband’s share spread across the frame like a rich gray carpet, hers — as the principal farm laborer — a tiny mound barely visible to one side. A photographer in Sierra Leone snapped a shot of a woman working knee deep in a pit of red palm oil, while her husband stood by to pocket the proceeds from her sales. 

Then there’s the labor of daily lives. Women take photos of women working in fields, forests, plantations, markets, and homes; women cultivating, harvesting, processing, selling, cooking, and serving food; women washing dishes, clothes, babies; women sweeping houses and yards; women fetching and carrying water, firewood, produce; women bearing burdens of all sorts on their heads — stalks of plantains, basins of tomatoes, bundles of firewood, bags of laundry — walking long distances to a field, or the market, or the river.

Even in big cities, women do these chores. In Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, women living in the very heart of the city spend hours each day, trudging back and forth to polluted wells in search of water. My computer now holds thousands of photos of women at work.

What emerges from these massed photos, first and foremost, is a bigger picture, a broader definition of violence against women. It is not just wife-beating or rape or sexual servitude. It is not just psychological tyranny and threat. For countless women in village and town, violence against women is life itself — a life that demands relentless forced hard labor just because they are women.

Showtime

Wherever I go, the Global Crescendo Project culminates in a photo show. Invariably, in every location, it is the First-Ever-All-Women’s-Photographic-Exhibition and a very big deal. Each photographer selects her most important images. I print enlargements and have them laminated. The photographers choose a venue and extend formal invitations to the chiefs and sub-chiefs, notables and dignitaries, families and friends, sometimes the whole village.

If the show is held in a meeting hall or school, we mount the photos on the wall. If it takes place under a village tree, the photographers hold up the pictures themselves, for all to see. Each woman in turn speaks about her photos — why she took them, what they show about what’s right or wrong with the community, what must change.

What happens then depends largely on local leadership. Outsiders often draw broad generalizations about foreign "cultures" as if they were all of a piece. In fact, African cultures are in flux and often dramatically varied. Old traditions may be belligerently defended by one chief, while repudiated by another in a village just down the road. African "cultures" rest on the conservatism or courage of such men — and on the rising voices of women. 

Last September, in the village of Zatta in Ivory Coast, women photographers who had never before attended a village meeting, spoken in public, or even dared to look at a chief stood before the village notables in the public square and showed their photos of women working hard. Then, Zounan Sylvie displayed a photograph of a woman’s bruised and bleeding leg. The woman’s husband had beaten her badly. Sylvie said the woman couldn’t take any more beatings and wanted the villagers to see a photo of her whole battered body, but Sylvie feared that if the woman was recognized, her husband might kill her.

At that, the chief raised his arm. "I have heard your message," he said. "I do not want violence of any kind. If such violence goes on in this village, it must stop now."

After the show he invited the photographers — who had formed an organization called Anouanze ("Unity") — to join his council of advisors. He invited all village women to attend village meetings. Overnight, cameras in hand, the women of Zatta village, who had never had a voice in public affairs, moved to the center of governance, and there they remain almost eight months later. This was our project’s greatest triumph, and a rebuke to those who adhere to the truism, "Change takes time."

In February, at the photo exhibition in the town of Kailahun in Sierra Leone, another powerful chief denounced all foreign non-governmental organizations (without whom his war-torn town would have even less in the way of health care, schools, and food) and warned all the townspeople: "Do not speak of FGM [female genital mutilation]. It is our tradition. We do not want foreign traditions." He then stomped out of the exhibition hall, followed by his cronies.

I was taken by surprise, for the chief had once welcomed us warmly and, in the whole course of the project, nobody had ever spoken about FGM. I make it a point to discuss only issues the women themselves raise with their photographs; FGM is an atrocity, but it is also a potent taboo.

After the show, when IRC national staff members went to talk to the chief, he told them he knew that FGM was a bad practice and should be stopped, but gradually — another believer that change takes time, despite the power he can wield.

A week later, after I’d left, 500 women marched through the town in a display of support for FGM, a display of loyalty to the chief. They carried signs that said in Mende and English, "We don’t talk about it." I saw this as our greatest defeat until I got an email from an IRC national staff member. "It’s really a very good thing," she wrote. "Before, nobody could even mention it. Now, thanks to the chief, at least people are talking about how they can’t talk about it. That’s progress."

"Your Eyes Are the Lens"

But you see what I mean about the riskiness of change? A great many African women are fed up with violence, fed up with their enslavement to work and the sexual proclivities of men. They want a better life for their daughters. They want to be able to send them to school and keep them safe from the sexual advances of their teachers and other grown men (or boys). They want change, and many of them — like the battered woman who wanted Zounan Sylvie to show her photograph — are willing to put their lives on the line.

In the South Kivu region of Congo, where I’m working now, we’ve just had to put the project on hold for security reasons in an area where the war seems to be heating up again. The IRC’s security specialists determined that women photographers might be in danger.

The women themselves, who have already survived acts of violence I can’t bear to tell you about, were eager to risk it. Their concept of risk is quite different from ours. One of them told me she’d found it crushing to be "hated," even by her own husband and family, after she was gang-raped by armed soldiers. She was helped by joining a group of women survivors — of whom there are thousands. She was able to get over her shame, she said, when she realized that being gang-raped is "normal."

Women’s wants are basic. They want their husbands to forgive them for having been raped by others. They want their husbands to help with the chores on the farm and around the house. They want men to take responsibility for their children, to help with their support and care. They want men to stop making senseless and devastating wars. One says, "We want to be safe in our homes, in our country, and that is our right." Another says, "We have a right to dream of a free, safe country. It is possible." ("Right," like "justice," is word such women increasingly use.)

What would these women I’ve been working with like to see in five years’ time? Vera dreams that all the broken buildings will be rebuilt and all the girls and boys will go to school together. Anna hopes to walk freely in the streets, without fear of assault. Mantina hopes that women and girls may be safe in their homes. Annie dreams that women will be self-employed. Esther prays that girls will be educated and take up positions in government. Kebeh hopes that her sister, paralyzed during a gang rape, may walk again. Betty wants women to act in solidarity. She says: "We are like a bundle of sticks. If the bundle is loose, men can pluck us out, one at a time, and break us. But a tight bundle of sticks cannot be broken."

When the show is over, I collect the cameras, pack my bag, and move on to the next country. Local staff from the International Rescue Committee continue to work with the women and support their agenda for change. As I write, I’ve just been informed by email that, after IRC staff and women photographers in Sierra Leone displayed their photos to a parliamentary committee, the women were invited to mount an exhibition for the full Parliament.

We don’t give away the cameras because there’s no way the women could maintain them or get the photos processed; and more important, they don’t need them. This project isn’t really about photography. It’s about women’s voices rising in conflict zones in a global crescendo of pain, protest, and hope. The camera is a device to encourage new ways of looking. The discussions the women organize around the photographs stimulate new methods of analysis and advocacy. My IRC colleague in Ivory Coast, Tanou Virginie, told photographers they didn’t need cameras. "Your eyes are the lens," she said. "The memory card is in your brain. And the picture can come out of your mouth."

I repeat that to all the photographers I work with. And they get it. One photographer in Liberia told the women’s group, "Some people use cameras. Some people are cameras. Me, I’m a camera."

Throughout the conflict zones of Africa, among women worn out by violence and wars in which they’ve had no voice, no role to play but that of target, and who now have no desire but to feed their surviving children, there are some women who have picked themselves up, reached out, and organized to help others. They’ve formed groups with names like Unity or the Commune of Women. They are smart and courageous, and many of them are angry. They are looking anew at the lives they’ve been handed by men and "tradition." Some of them took part in the Global Crescendo Project — seeing things with new eyes, talking things over, speaking up, and arguing persuasively for change. Amid the ruins of their countries, their voices grow louder every day.

Below is the accompanying Tomdispatch video (filmed by videographer Brett Story) in which Ann Jones discusses the camera project that is the subject of this dispatch.

 

Writer/photographer Ann Jones is working as a volunteer with the Gender-Based Violence unit of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on "A Global Crescendo: Women’s Voices from Conflict Zones," the special women’s advocacy project she describes in this article. Her blogs about the project and the participants’ photographs can be viewed by clicking here. She’s the author, most recently, of Kabul In Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books), a report from another war that’s not yet over. To view a video of Ann Jones discussing her photography project in West Africa, click here.

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), which has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.]

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