GULU- A young woman gazes silently at a dreadlocked man who looks intensely at her from a photograph.“I think he’s so good looking!” she finally declares. Like the group of twenty women surrounding her, she is a teenage single-mother, a person formerly abducted by LRA rebels, and now living in a refugee camp in Gulu.
The women are speaking to Moses J Ceaser and Morgan Stetler, two American photographers on assignment in East Africa. In February this year, they decided to take a detour to Awer camp, Gulu, where they conducted a master-class in photography. They surrendered their time, and a bag full of single-use film cameras to a group of single-mothers, and after a little training, asked them to document their lives in pictures.
“It’s very possible that the images, because it’s the first time they’ve ever touched a camera, will not tell even a fraction of the story”, says Ceaser. “My hope is that [the cameras] will be a tool to get them to start expressing themselves, to have them look at their photographs and explain what story they were trying to tell.”
The pair was invited to Gulu by the Zion Project, a faith-based non-profit organisation that helps rehabilitate formerly abducted or displaced child-mothers.
Explaining the rationale behind the photo initiative, Sarita Hartz, Founder-Director of the project, says “People always come and take lots of photos in camps. It’s like a zoo; people are just sitting there, being photographed. It’s dehumanising. Why not let them take their own photos? It empowers them.”
Photography by its very nature tends to be intrusive, and photographers have a reputation for being insensitive. In contrast, Ceaser and Stetler make the training process as inclusive as possible, and begin by asking the women to comment on some photos they had taken in West Africa. One mother said she liked a photo of a Ghanaian woman cradling her young son; another liked the colourful fabrics worn by girl in Mali; and the dreadlocked stranger turned out to be an inmate of a refugee camp in Burkina Faso.
What follows is basic technical training in taking a photo: subject placement, background, close-up, panorama, shooting away from the sun, and asking your subject’s permission before taking a photo. The women are then asked to ‘make’ viewfinders (the eyepiece of the camera that one looks into) by framing a rectangle using the thumbs and index fingers of their hands, and to go around camp composing pictures they would later like to take with real cameras. Over the next two months the women, cameras at the ready, documented stories in camp.
Eighteen-year-old Josephine Apio is an orphaned, landless, school dropout, whose baby daughter was fathered by a man from a different tribe. “My other family members don’t care about me”, she whispers, “they don’t respect my child and say that she is a ‘foreigner’”.
Since her husband left her, she has had to fend for herself by doing odd jobs and receiving food aid from the World Food Programme. Those handouts formally ceased in March 2009. Nineteen year-old Jennifer Apacu is an orphaned mother of two. She has land, but it has been grabbed by her paternal uncles although, as she says, “they have no right to that land”. The photos capture fragments of these lives, and touchingly, provide a glimpse of the relationship between child-mothers and their children.
In 2007, the first edition of the IDP photo project led to the best pictures being exhibited online and in galleries and churches across America. Money raised from sales and donations went back to Zion Project, enabling it to send some of these budding young photographers to secondary or vocational school, and helped them get internships in local businesses and hotels in Gulu. This year, Hartz hopes for another exhibition, with the project’s current goal being to acquire land to resettle women.
“People tend to be ready to tell a story”, Stetler says about the process of empowerment-through-photography. “They all believe there is something they weren’t able to express to the people outside their insular community; but they do want to tell somebody.” That willingness to speak has helped create a visual document of life in Northern Uganda’s IDP camps untouched by the prejudices of outsiders.
In a small way, these photos record the region’s transition from insurgency to peace. But in a much bigger way, they bear witness to the courage of a handful of young women who found hope, if not in the blink of an eye, then certainly in the click of shutter.