Cutting Trees

Cutting trees, where female genital cutting ceremonies were performed, Mundemu, Tanzania, 2017

Digital scan of Platinum-palladium print on Arches Platine from 8×10 negative

This photograph is part of ongoing work, From Where Loss Comes. The collection is not yet complete, but since I have begun to post images from the set, I feel it may be necessary to provide some background. I most certainly want to express, from the outset, gratitude to my collaborator, Sara Mwaga and her colleagues.

“So much pain goes covered, and I want your photographs to provide an eye, another way of opening what is felt in isolation,” Sarah Mwaga, an activist and community leader in Dodoma, Tanzania, said this to me as we worked together during the Summer of 2017 in Tanzania. She was talking of a pain and suffering that is private, sacrificial, about community, and yet clashes with values that are considered inalienable—our fundamental human rights. Combating female genital mutilation/circumcision/cutting (FGC) has been a twenty-year commitment for Sarah and her female colleagues. They are part of a culture and traditional practices that carry out FGC, and have granted me deep access into their lives.

I am deeply aware that strategies reacting to FGC have themselves been critiqued, mainly for being adventitious and from the West, from outside. There is now a widespread recognition that combating FGC has to be generated from within, and based on reflection and traditional experience. Sarah Mwaga, the ‘cutters’ or ngariba (the Swahili word for circumciser), and ex-ngariba with whom I have spent time and photographed, clearly understand this. Their experience, in helping communities reconsider their histories, and reshape traditions towards a more humane practice, stands to contribute to a broader post-colonial and post-tribal discourse. Neither they nor I are naive about the global, cultural and political ground on which the fight against FGC is staged. Nor can matters of access, identity and privilege be avoided, especially in this kind of a gender-specific situation. But I am convinced that shared knowledge of experiences such as these, often and wrongly cloaked as solitary and personal, makes us wiser. The ‘writing’ of experience, in the case of …Loss…, has to resonate rather than replicate or document. Explicit content can shock and horrify but it also turns tragedy into spectacle, and I am wary of that. Hence, this sharing has to come from a poetic expression rather than a literal one, from the implicit rather than the explicit, from the extensive rather than intensive.

I am compelled to understand what leads to cutting away the sensory body; the root cause seems ancient, and is aligned to my concern for the way loss affects us. The linkage, for instance, between loss of self and the way one fits into a community is a tense and perpetual human dynamic. And this begs broader questions: What are we willing to give up, as individuals, in order to be included and escape solitude? What landscape of personal and cultural priorities is at work (see I Have Gone)? What does a person have to lose in order to remain a citizen (see Campsite for the Non-Citizen)? These questions rebound from the horror of cutting away at a woman’s body, but also come from my personal narrative as a refugee.

Loss, in other words, is the price for survival. This plays out in all of our lives. FGC, as a removal of sexual desire, as a way of losing a part of oneself in order to ensure that the social and familial mesh is sustained, is a sacrificial practice. FGC is wrong not only because it harms the bodies and psyche of mothers, wives and daughters, but also because it rips the psychological and economic fabric of communities—the very thing that it is purported to preserve. Sacrifice, as the price of membership in community, has always, I believe, been defined by patriarchies. Even though women perpetuate the practice of FGC, their relative lack of agency ultimately harms community and threatens the human condition. For this reason, if no other, it matters that men care about FGC—the fight against it stands as a symbolization of women’s agency, and as a move toward a healthy societal psyche.

I care.

Full scan of the print and a detail