Powerful Insight Into The Strength Of African Women By Julia Gunther
The portrayal of African women by the mainstream media has bombarded us with pictures of poverty, crime, violent deaths and suffering - leaving out glorious stories of resilience, pride and strength of women from these regions. Therefore it is paramount for us to shed light on stories of courage, tenacity and accomplishments from individuals who defy limitations, break boundaries and change perceptions of the victimisation of African women.
One such person is Julia Gunther, a documentary photographer who commits her time and passion to capture these powerful tales through her project ‘Proud Women of Africa’. This is what Julia had to say in her exclusive interview with us.
Could you briefly tell us about your project Proud Women of Africa?
Proud Women of Africa is a collection of short visual stories about the daily lives of remarkable women living or working in Africa. All the women in my pictures have suffered in some way: they’ve been ostracised by society, are desperately poor, or have experienced terrible injustice. But these women are so much more than their pasts. They have taken their suffering and turned it into something positive. They have become activists, community workers, revolutionaries. They do not see themselves as victims, and refuse to be identified as such. These Proud Women of Africa want to be portrayed as they see themselves: proud of who they are, of their lives and the love they represent.
What were the reasons for you starting this project?
Proud Women of Africa began with my friend Philipa being diagnosed with cancer. I was working at a production company in Cape Town in 2008 and met Philipa on my first job and we immediately became friends. Shortly after that she was diagnosed with breast cancer and we decided to document her illness, with the idea of showing the world what she had gone through. Sadly though, Philipa died in February 2012 after the cancer spread to her brain.
Philipa was proud of who she was and never let her illness define her. I saw a kind of theme in her pride, something that I began seeing all around me. Other examples of women who had suffered in some way, yet who remained proud of who they were, and so I decided to try and capture more examples of this. During my frequent trips to Cape Town to be at Philipa's side and to document her fight against cancer, I also started documenting another friend of mine called Ruthy. ‘Ruthy Goes to Church’ was born and therefore the second part of my Proud Women of Africa stories. The third part ‘Rainbow Girls’ followed then ‘Maternity Ward’, ‘Chedino & Family’ and recently the sixth part called ‘The Black Mambas’.
What do you want to achieve with Proud Women of Africa? Are you trying to reach out to a particular audience?
I hope that the PWOA and their stories will help paint a different, more positive picture of women in Africa. But more importantly, I hope to positively impact the lives of the women I have photographed and to help them in their struggle for acceptance. The more people read about PWOA the more recognition they get. More than anything, that is what these women deserve. Recognition for who they are and what they’ve gone through to get there.
When you connect with women and learn about their stories – how does this affect you personally?
It's been a real eye opener and incredibly emotional. After all, these women have trusted me enough to allow me to publicise those parts of their lives that they have, in most cases, kept hidden for many years. When I sit across from these women, sharing a meal or a beer, and they tell me about their lives, it's truly humbling. It's also been incredibly liberating to be able to work on my own, with no deadlines or clients. I go out into the world, find stories that inspire me, and capture them, free from judgement. I think that also makes it easier for the women I photograph, because they know that I'm the only one they have to focus on while we're together.
In one of your posts you speak about an impromptu beach whale rescue and spending time with the Black Mamba Anti‐Poaching unit? Could you tell us a bit more about this?
For my most recent project I spent a week with the Black Mambas, South Africa’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, which patrols the Balule Nature Reserve. There they are spearheading a new approach to anti-poaching: local women are trained to become unarmed scouts and rangers. These women often come from the same communities as the poachers. So the relationship between these two enemies is very different than the usual heavily armed soldiers who patrol the park. I was immediately drawn to this novel approach to saving South Africa’s wildlife. Especially since these women were not only protecting animals, but also breaking through the glass ceiling by doing jobs normally reserved for men, and because of their dedication to educating their own communities about the values of conservation.
The beached whale incident was something that happened while I was in South Africa. I was there shooting the first part of PWOA. A friend and I were supposed to go surfing that morning but had heard of the stranded whales and decided to help instead. The two of us, together with many others, tried pushing the whales back into the water. But as is so often the case with beached whales, they did not or could not go back. And so, unfortunately all of them died.
Would you describe yourself as an activist? Do you take photographs to educate people about societal issues?
No, I would not. I am only a means to an end. All I do is help the PWOA in their fight for respect, but they do all the real work, and they are the ones who deserve the distinction of activist. Societal issues are important to me, and so I naturally gravitate towards these kind of pictures. Primarily, the people I want to educate are those who live in the same communities as my subjects.
How do you think Proud Women of Africa has made an impact?
I was worried at first, not only because I wasn’t sure if the Proud Women of my stories would like the pictures, but also about how the pictures would change their lives. For some, the pictures meant exposure of their cause, like with the Black Mambas. But with others, exposure meant more risk, more criticism. But every single PWOA has been wonderful. In fact, I’m happy to say that they are using the pictures to firmly establish their true selves, like Chedino, who thanks to the exposure my pictures got her, is now trying to change perceptions about LGBTQ in her own community.
How do you plan to take Proud Women of Africa forward?
Project by project, I hope. I plan to continue photographing proud African women as long as they will have me. :-) I would love to explore other parts of Africa and find PWOA there to document. But for now, I’m shooting the next part this summer, and then the part after that in the beginning of 2017.
On a closing note, are there any other issues that you would personally like to cover?
There are so many issues in the world that I think I’m set for the rest of my life. Education, urban living, agriculture. Plus, I don’t just want to cover one issue once. It might be that I return to a subject with a different PWOA. So yes. There are many things I would still like to cover.
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