Picture Change

Rose Achayo wants to show me something.

She pulls down the front of her pretty blue and black dress to show off the ugly, dark scars across her chest. Rose says members of the Lord’s Resistance Army stabbed her with a bayonet after she dropped a heavy load of rice she’d been carrying for many miles.

For Rose is dwog paco – Luo for ‘come back home’ – just one out of thousands of children that were abducted from their Ugandan homes by Joseph Kony’s LRA.

Most of us know about the abduction and use of children as soldiers in far-flung places such as Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Colombia. We’ve absorbed the media image of a child soldier as a teenage boy gripping a Kalashnikov, a necklace of bullets draped around his narrow shoulders, sky-high on a cocktail of drugs and booze.

But contrary to the misconception that child soldiers are only young boys, Rose is just one of approximately 8,000 girls who were forced to not only be commanders’ wives, but also soldiers, often running into battle with babies on their backs. Rose is a three-time victim: torn away from her home by the LRA; forced to be a wife in the bush, and now stigmatized by her community and even her own family upon her return.

I hoped that the photograph I took of Rose would illustrate to a western audience that the scars of war are not only physical, but that they also have a more long-lasting psychological effect. Even though the guns have been silent now in Uganda for more than half a decade, most Canadians don’t realize that the problems for female former child soldiers like Rose still persist.

I believe that a great photograph, like great journalism, should not only serve to educate its audience but also to move them. And I believe all the images in PhotoSensitive’s Picture Change exhibit do just that.

Contrary to the old school photojournalism of detachment I subscribe to, in certain circumstances, the photojournalism of attachment. Reporting from, and photographing people, in post-war societies places the photojournalist in a centrifugal state – a space where the lines of objectivity become blurred.

Meeting and photographing Mary Achege is a perfect example.

Mary escaped from the LRA five years ago, and yet she tells me that life is still hard for her. Five years on, she still wakes up to see the spirits of those she was forced to kill, standing over her bed. Five years on she is still stigmatized by her own community. Her own mother and brother insult and beat the children she returned with. Five years on, she has to toil on other people’s land to make a living. She never received a formal education and so has no immediate opportunities for a better job. Five years on, she cannot afford the drugs she needs to combat the HIV infection she contracted as a bush wife. And she can’t afford the bus fare to get to the hospital, just an hour away – so she goes without.

And she is not alone.

Sadly, Mary’s experiences are representative of the 40 formerly abducted women I interviewed in the summer of 2011, who still struggle to survive. This is despite the continued existence of reception centres and aid agencies in the war-affected regions of Uganda. There are systemic problems at every stage and level of aid, from the first point of contact at reception centres, to foreign and indigenous NGOs, to government rehabilitation initiatives.

Finally I was adamant that these women would have the opportunity to tell their own stories. Researcher fatigue is a common malaise in northern Uganda where the Acholi feel they have been poked, prodded and examined by journalists and researchers looking for an insight into a child soldier’s life. So how could I best address this fatigue, and find the medium to cross the linguistic and cultural divide?

Anthropographia was one solution. It’s a visual advocacy of sorts. I wanted these women to actively participate; to help others see the world through their eyes and to help me fairly represent their own stories.

Five of the 40 women were given a digital camera, provided with some basic photography training and then asked to take photos that represented their daily lives: from visits to the local health centre; to their homes, places of work, and friends and family. This approach actively involved them in the research, taught them a new marketable skill, and gave me an invaluable fly-on-the-wall view of what their post-abduction lives are like. The results were staggering not only in terms of how quickly the women developed their photographic skills, but the untold stories they also revealed.

The photographs I took of women like Rose and Mary, and the photos that the women themselves took, ultimately show that war is only half the story. Often the recovery from conflict is a much longer and harder road to travel.