Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.
issue 185 - July 1988
Photojournalists have little control over the use of their pictures in
newspapers and magazines. So we turned these pages over to British
photographer Jenny Matthews - for her to suggest the pictures she would like
to see published and the captions she would write to accompany them.
For the past five years I've been working as a photographer, dashing in and out of skirmishes, wars and other people's lives, exchanging smiles and taking photos. Along the way I've had the privilege of meeting many remarkable people, and some of the most impressive have been women. They aren't necessarily in the front-line, making political decisions, but they are a part of the social change going on around them. Their humour, food-making, childcare and determination make life possible.
I've been able to spend time photographing women because although I've been in 'news situations' I haven't had the pressure of having to file news stories. I work free-lance, usually financing trips on my credit card and repaying the cost once I return and have picture sales. It's not the most secure way of working but it does mean that I don't have the pressure of a wire service photographer who has to get a picture that will sum up an event, when often the most interesting aspect involves waiting, or is around the corner away from the President casting a vote or whatever the story happens to be.
My work feeds into Format, a picture library based in London, which a group of us set up five years ago. Format receives picture requests from a broad range of clients - development agencies, newspapers, and both mainstream and alternative magazines. Most of my work ends up reproduced as single images illustrating an article and usually I don't know about it until I see the cutting.
This selection of photographs spans three continents, four wars and five different 'battles'.
All the women in them I found remarkable for their resilience and determination. I see them as part of a worldwide network of optimists and survivors, and I am very pleased to have met them.
Mozambique - Carry water
Life in Mozambique is extremely hard. People are totally isolated in their communities, fearful of attacks by the 'armed bandits' (Renamo). There are virtually no consumer goods, and the few items that are available are strictly rationed. I was being driven to the airport and we made a detour through a shanty town and I saw these women walking home with their water cans. I hauled myself out of the stupor I fall into when not working, chatted to them and laughed about taking photos. As much as possible I try to give explanations of why I'm taking pictures, although I know I can never fully explain what might happen to the images. The best I can do is to create an atmosphere of trust and for my own part, do my best for the society the people are part of. In the case of Mozambique I returned to Britain in December 1986 at a time when British aid agencies were launching a joint emergency appeal - and my photos were used.
It is difficult to take one photo which sums up the Nicaraguan Revolution, and after six years of war with the contras the economic chaos sometimes makes it hard to appreciate the changes that have occurred. Although the Sandinistas have a strong commitment to women - for example they encourage men to share housework - there are still a large number of women supporting children by themselves. Everyday life is extremely hard for women like this street-seller who has to contend with the economic blockade of her country and the enormous strain placed on its resources by the war.
Given the tremendous logistical problems of arranging transport in many countries, it's wonderful when you turn up and find a scene looking as though it's been art-directed in case a camera crew happen to drop in. We drove past this literacy class in a concealed thorn bush classroom and stopped to chat.
The woman with the Kalashnikov (captured from Ethiopia) really was sitting in the front row with the others arranged around her. A few seconds later the scene dissolved as school ended and the women rushed off to collect children and cook supper.
I don't want the people in my photos to appear as victims but often I have been in situations where that is the case - seeing children maimed or starving because they are part of a political equation. Although this child has severe diarrhoea I feel the gaze of the mother is so strong and direct that it engages the viewer and demands more than pity.
A good many photographs are the result of following up rumours. I'd heard that there were now women driving the tractors in the northern war zone and set off with a friend to find them. It wasn't a very easy task, walking miles carrying cameras, always a couple of fields behind them. Eventually we caught up, just as they were packing up for the day.
Nancy comes from Ghana, lives in North London, works as a hospital cleaner and supports six children on her minuscule wage. I met her during the Health Service dispute when I spent a couple of days documenting life in a hospital. When I asked the patient if she minded being photographed she said she'd be delighted to be in a picture with Nancy who came and cheered her up every day. I left the slippers in the frame intentionally, because of the contrast with Nancy's shoes, and I also like the way the newspaper is open at the pin-up page.
From the news footage it is easy to think of Gaza as no more than a series of violent incidents occurring in debris-strewn streets. One of the highlights of my visit was going to a class of trainee midwives. The 17 young women from refugee camps were thoroughly enjoying their training. The photos from this session are hardly headline material, but they do show how life is multi-dimensional and that the scenes that do make the front pages have to be set in the context of a thousand and one sideline events.
Curfews, restricted travel, closed schools and universities and general strikes have brought life in the Occupied Territories to pretty much of a standstill. Protesting is the only means of expressing frustration and anger. A certain amount is done 'for the camera', but I felt that if this is how people want to be represented, it is a fair portrayal of their resistance.