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42

Lee and Francess in Whidbey

I first visited Sierra Leone in February 2007 to launch a digital photography project, a visual conversation if you like, linking women in my home town of Hull in Yorkshire, England, with women in Freetown. For thirty years Hull and Freetown have been officially twinned as cities to foster cultural understanding and friendships, but really we didn’t know much about the people at the grassroots level, especially the women.

The project was supposed to last two weeks, culminating in a book and a small exhibition. Almost five years on we have become Women with Cameras, a small, intimate collaboration of sharing, learning, utilising our strengths and resourcefulness, and making the best of what life has given us.

Running parallel to this, and what funds Women with Cameras, is my own documentary photographic study of what makes these incredible women tick. Known as ’42’, this evolving body of work comprises 42 images and has become an international touring exhibition and slideshow talk. On a more profound and intimate level, 42 is my tribute to the beauty, hope and resilience of women who wake each morning with the belief that one day life really will get better.

Sierra Leone is a beautiful country in West Africa, set between Guinea and Liberia, and edged by the Atlantic Ocean. Mountains and rainforest rise from white beaches or the sprawl of houses, shanty towns and dusty streets. It is a place where the young once studied at one of the finest universities in West Africa, and tourists once flocked to the ‘Athens of Africa’.

But bad governance and an 11-year civil war, one of the most brutal in living memory, brought the country to its knees. Thousands of people were slaughtered, maimed, raped and displaced. Since the war ended in 2002 Sierra Leone has been trying to recover, repairing roads, bringing freshwater to its people, education to its children, and switching the electricity back on. Democratic elections were held and a new free health care program for women and children is underway. Yet the country still groans under the weight of crippling economic and social problems, corruption and high unemployment. For women especially, life is tough. Too many suffer inequality, brutality, hardship, neglect and despair. Too many are invisible.

In 2007, when I first began the project, statistics stated that life expectancy for women in Sierra Leone was 42. I was on the cusp of turning 42 myself and so I looked up my life expectancy, as a white woman living in the West, and found it to be 83, almost double. I saw this as a violation of human rights, the right of everyone to be given the chance to live a long, healthy life. As I grew to know the women personally, that statistic, 42, became Gladys, Francess, Cecilia, Rebecca, Sarah, Grace, Esther ..... ‘‘Women are not dying because of diseases we cannot treat. They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving’’ reported Amnesty International in 2009.

Whilst sharing a bedroom with Rebecca and her first-born, Raymond, at her village house with candles for light, no running water, and ochre and paw-paw growing in the garden I listened to joys,  fears, laughter and heartaches. With Gladys, squashed with her siblings and their children in a house of exposed wires, no running water, and broken chairs I heard of a lost time when there would be real butter on the breakfast table. With Khendine, I saw how her family home of Eighties’ style zebra striped chairs and fancy wallpaper, had become as sad as her despair. With Cecilia, I wondered how she could make everyone laugh and cook the most delicious ground nut stew. With ‘Sporty’ Cecilia I watched her slide into a diabetic coma at the age of 39, recover, only to manage her condition the only way she knew how and could afford; by switching from white rice to brown rice and from white bread to brown bread.

In 20 years of travel and journalism work, I have never experienced such despair, abject poverty, or frustration. Nor have I encountered such beauty, strength and resilience. I return again and again and through my own photography try to tell this story, whilst teaching the women who want to learn how they can use photography to tell their own stories. This isn’t about giving the women of Sierra Leone a voice, they have voices, big ones and they certainly don’t need me to show them how to use them. They’re just not being listened to enough. Photography can give them a platform from which to shout, or whisper, whatever they want the rest of the world to know. I believe in the training of indigenous photographers if we are to have a more accurate and balanced view of the world. Photography is no longer the privilege of the ‘wealthy’ white Westerner with his/her fancy camera - and I include myself in this description.

Meanwhile, Women with Cameras, continues and grows. A few of the women are using photography for creative expression; to advocate for change on issues which affect them; and to earn incomes. Several of the women have visited us in the UK, in Hull, Liverpool and London, for further media skills training and to promote their photographic work, or even just to share their anecdotes and stories of life in Sierra Leone. Organisations such as BBC Humber, the International Slavery Museum, the Rotary Club, local newspapers and countless friends and acquaintances have helped me to fund raise and provide opportunities. There is so much work for us still to do, and often the going is painful, exasperating and financially hair-raising. But just look at what these women have achieved.

Rebecca has set up a small photography business in her village, making passport style photos for students at schools for their exam papers, and offering secretarial work and sports’ day certificates carrying images of the participants. Julie is using photography to campaign against domestic violence and female genital mutilation. Gladys, a poorly-paid teacher, has an evolving ‘Christmas in Freetown’ photography theme which is paying for her further education studies in Public Sector Management. Francess, formerly unemployed and frustrated to the point of paralysis, became a professional photographer, exhibiting her work in the UK, publishing her first photography portfolio, and winning a scholarship to study for two weeks at the Pacific NorthWest Arts School in the USA, under the tutoring of National Geographic legend, photographer Mr Sam Abell.

As for me, the work continues. I’m in touch with the women day-in, day-out. Without their collaboration, without their willingness to open up their lives to me, and to give something new a try, there would be no photos, no stories. My latest offshoot project ‘Fighting for Gold’ is the most ambitious yet; to bring the underfunded, under-equipped Sierra Leone’s women boxing team  to train in the UK in the run-up to the Olympics 2012 in London when, for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, women will be allowed to fight in the ring. These women are fighting to be there, to bring home the gold, and symbolise the women of Africa fighting for their rights to be seen, to be noticed, to be respected.

www.leekarenstow.com

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