The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) commissioned a study on the effects of war on women: what was happening to women and what needed to be addressed, supported or changed. It wanted to illustrate some of its work across the world and asked me to produce a series of photographs and short documentary films to do that. I knew about the ICRC as a result of my trips to Afghanistan in 1984, when the Soviet Union was there. It [ICRC] has been very helpful to me since about 1989, so it’s been a long-term relationship.
I found these women by a variety of means. For example, one of the women was in a female theatre group and we met a whole group of them. In another case (above) – in Afghanistan – a young girl simply pushed her way through a massive crowd of men and started telling me her story; it seemed incredible. She grabbed my hand, pushed her way back through the crowd and marched me past all the men to where she was living – a kind of tent cobbled together with disused rags. She was [ten-year-old] Mah Bibi, whose parents had died.
She’s the only one I haven’t been able to find again. She had pushed her way through the crowd as there was going to be a food distribution, but she wasn’t allowed to sign up as head of the family because she was a minor. She was outraged by the injustice of it all, and when I arrived in a vehicle she came forward and started telling me her story. The younger of the two brothers is in the background [of the picture]. The condition of the tent was literally rope and string used as stitching between a kind of handkerchief of rags. I was doing stills and a colleague, Laura Ashton, was shooting the video – there were just two of us in Afghanistan.
Initially, [the project] was manic because we went to Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Afghanistan, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia. It was pretty much non-stop for about three or four months. But that was the easy part, as it took years to find everyone again.
I was shooting in black & white, usually on Kodak Tri-X [film]. I was using Tri-X 400 black & white and Olympus OM-4Ti and 3Ti cameras, which I continue to use today with the same lenses, 30 years after I first got them!
I met some remarkable women and it was always on my mind [to return], so when I went back to those locations I wanted to meet up with them again. I kept thinking about these women and what had become of them. I tracked down ten; it’s remarkable [to know] that ten of them are definitely alive. I’m still determined to find out exactly what happened to Mah Bibi. I’ve been to that area [of Afghanistan] three times since 2001, and each time I’ve looked for her, but it’s a remote area.
The lady in the Gaza Strip is Zakiya (above). Her husband was arrested and given several life sentences. There was a group of spouses of men in detention who used to visit their husbands in prison for a monthly visit. So we met them in the front courtyard of the ICRC as they were signing up to go on this trip. We met Zakiya and she told us her story – she was bringing up five children on her own. In most cases, the children have to go to the husband’s family to be looked after, but she was determined to bring up her own kids. What’s remarkable is that the daughters have all been more successful – they’re all university educated, teachers, and so on. The sad thing is, not specific to her but for other women, the men often face long prison sentences and when they’re released they decide to take another wife – usually much younger.
It’s important to realise that women shouldn’t be more vulnerable in war. There are laws that protect not just women but civilians. Culturally, I think that unfortunately women have often been targeted for particular aspects that take place in war. It might even be in terms of legal redress – for example, a woman whose husband goes missing often can’t inherit the land.
A strong part of the project was not just to give women a voice but for change to take place culturally, and legally in terms of protection afforded to women – that changes should be implemented. And that’s what this project was about: advocating change and seeking further protection for women.
Eleven Women Facing War
This is the first time this touring exhibition has been shown in the UK. The prints are not particularly large – most are 50x77cm. I want a sort of intimacy; I want you to ‘get into’ the picture rather than stand back and look at it. I want the viewer to be up there, in front of the images. None of the photographs are cropped – that’s how I shot them, which is really important to me. They’re all shot on wideangle lenses, so I’m very close to the people. In a sense, I want people to be at the same distance they were shot at – the distance they’ll stand when looking at them. In the captions there’s a little bit of their story – a way of drawing you into each individual’s story.
Eleven Women Facing War is on show at the Imperial War Museum in London until 24 April. Admission is free. Visit www.iwm.org.uk.
About Nick Danziger
Nick’s most recent books include Mana: Inside the All Blacks, a behind-the-scenes look at New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team, and Onze femmes, which traces the lives of 11 women from countries in conflict over the past decade. His ‘mirror’ image of Tony Blair and George W Bush, shot during a 30-day study of a Prime Minister at war, won a World Press Photo award in 2004. www.nickdanziger.com