The entire collection of images is not online, but posts about some of the images with commentary are going up regularly.
“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, the nurturing of which extend into a nurtured environment. Combating female genital mutilation/circumcision/cutting has been a twenty-year commitment for Sarah and her female colleagues. They are part of cultural and traditional practices that carry out FGM/C, and have granted me deep access into their lives.
I have collaborated for over fifteen years with subaltern communities in American Appalachia, Haiti and Jamaica, formulating ways of using photography to strengthen social ties, identify shared experiences, and articulate needs. Throughout my career as a photographer and a teacher, I have learned from looking, to generate value by holding attention, to assign meaning to relationships as well as to shapes. I strongly believe that this type of looking can become a powerful instrument for understanding how our most personal experiences are part of larger cycles and patterns. So it is that the promise of community in exchange for a personal loss, FGM/C, needs our consideration.
I am deeply aware that strategies reacting to FGM/C have themselves been critiqued, mainly for being adventitious and from the West, from outside. There is now a widespread recognition that combating FGM/C 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 former 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 deeper understanding of other tragedies, pricking away like thorns on the branches between personal and global extremes. Neither they nor I are naive about the global, cultural and political ground on which the fight against FGM/C 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 cloaked as solitary and personal, makes us wiser. The ‘writing’ of experience, in this case, has to resonate rather than replicate or document. And this same type of resonance will help people direct conversations within their communities about the relationship between women’s health and environmental health, for instance. Explicit content can shock and horrify but it also turns tragedy into spectacle. Neither genital pain nor environmental crisis are spectacles. Hence, this sharing has to come from a poetic expression rather than a literal one, from the implicit rather than the explicit.
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 in community and thereby increase the chances of survival? What landscape of personal and cultural priorities is at work? What does a person have to lose in order to remain a citizen? What will the human race of the Anthropocene era have to relinquish in order survive? These questions rebound from the horror of cutting away at a woman’s body.
Loss, in other words, is the price for survival. This plays out in all of our lives. FGM/C, 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. Yet FGM/C is wrong not only because it harms the bodies and psyche of mothers, wives and daughters, but also because it rips the psychological 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 FGM/C, their relative lack of agency ultimately harms community and threatens the human and environmental condition. For this reason, if no other, it matters that men care about FGM/C—the fight against it stands as a symbolization of women’s agency, and as a move toward a healthy societal psyche.
Note on the technical aspects of the work, particularly in terms of construction and means of production
The deep access and trust granted to me by Sarah Mwaga and the NGO that she directs, Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Network (AFNET), is bringing together three distinct streams of a methodology I have developed over the past forty years. I have worked poetically as a photographer, driving all of my imagery towards experiences and matters of loss. I have contributed to the technical and historic fields of photography through the platinum/palladium printing processes, which resolves the object as both a poignant and visceral expression. And, I have spent the past decade developing ways of making it possible for subaltern communities, in Haiti, with Professor Deborah McGrath (Biology, The University of the South, USA) and Grundy County, TN, with Professors Karen Yu (Psychology, The University of the South, USA) and Linda Mayes (Yale University, USA) to incorporate photographic practices into sustainable community development.
I prepared for, and worked with the women of Dodoma, Tanzania for over two years, and spent many weeks in the field with them. The photographs, made with film and an 8×10 camera, and the prints, rendered in the nuanced tonality of platinum-palladium, together are designed to hold attention. Attention, or being compelled to look at an object (the print), amounts to valuing the subject. Developing value requires immersion, both in the production and reading of the work. Thus, the work is intended primarily as a book, to be held, discussed, attended to. It is this kind of sustained attention that builds sufficient energy for us to excavate the links between loss and love, and begin to answer perpetual questions about what it is to be human.