Photographing Women in the Face of Adversity

“Being born a female is dangerous to your health. This reality may not be true for many readers, but for most women living in poorer countries around the globe, it is devastating.” – Anne Firth Murray

When I first came across Mark Tuschman’s project (and now book) Faces of Courage: Intimate Portraits of Women on the Edge, I felt a knot in my stomach, my chest tightened, my throat went dry. From the cover, Kala, a child bride stares at me. She is from the rural Pali district of Rajasthan, India, where child marriage is widely practiced. Elegantly dressed in a red sari, she looks into the lens of Tuschman’s camera with great dignity. Kala was married when she was three months old so that her family could avoid paying the dowry. She is now 13 and in seventh grade. Although still living with her parents, she will soon go to her husband’s home where she will be deprived for the rest of her childhood, trapped in a cycle of poverty that will include years of household labor and childrearing, and very possibly, domestic abuse.

Tuschman, a veteran freelance photographer for over 35 years, has spent a good chunk of his career travelling to developing countries, working in collaboration with UN agencies, foundations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to bring audiences “tender and unflinching portraits of women and girls who are living in high-risk, often life threatening situations.” He spoke to me from his home in California about his very important work.

Family planning

“The NKST (Nongo u Kristu u ken Sudan hen Tiv) Church is an evangelical Christian community in Gboko, northern Nigeria. The church has 127,115 members distributed across 298 congregations. As Nigeria provides little to no healthcare services for its citizens, the church has taken over this responsibility by becoming a healthcare provider; NKST manages nine hospitals and 123 primary healthcare centers.”

What gave you the idea for the Faces of Courage project?

For the past decade I have been on a mission to document the lack of autonomy that millions of women in developing countries have over their own lives and bodies. A lot of people have asked me what motivates me to devote so much of my life to this. I make a living as a commercial photographer and even though this satisfies my wallet, it never satisfied my belief that photography should be used to promote consciousness and social justice. Part of the feeling comes from growing up in New York’s Lower East Side (LES), living with my grandparents in a tenement house. I don’t know if you know about the history of the LES, but it’s where all the immigrants settled at the turn of the 20th century. When I became interested in photography I was really attracted to the work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine because they documented the poverty, child labor, and terrible living conditions that existed at that time. I became very sensitized to people’s struggles. I am a fan of Nicholas Kristof and read his columns about the plight of women all around the world. In 2001, I had a close friend who was on the board of directors of the Global Fund for Women so she arranged for to go to Asia; I went to China, Mongolia, and Thailand to document some of their grantees. And it was there that for the first time I really came face to face with the brutal reality that so many women and girls face on an everyday basis.


“On the outskirts of Yogyakarta, I sat in the living room of Seni, a 27-year-old Indonesian woman who was accompanied by her husband, her son, and her mother. Seni told the story of how she was held as a domestic worker in slave-like conditions in Saudi Arabia for nearly three years without being able to communicate with her family. Seni had recently been reunited with her family, but the psychological trauma that she and her family endured was quite evident.”

Wow, it must have been so confronting. Did anything stand out from that trip?

A couple of things. When I was in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, I was accompanied by a group of lawyers, who were trying to protect fistula-abused women, to the shelter where they were living. And they took me down really narrow alleyways to a very small, nondescript, but heavily fortified building. We went through these double-locked doors to a room of double-bunk beds, all of them filled with women of all ages. There was a grandmother by herself and many women with babies and young children and even a young girl all by herself. The lawyers told me that these women wouldn’t be able to stay for very long as it was the only shelter in the whole city and there was a huge demand for spaces. They would have to leave within a week or 10 days and face the same violence that forced them to flee in the first place. And they told me one story that was so unbelievable. They were unsuccessfully trying to prosecute a man who lived in the Steppes of Mongolia. He starved his wife to death and watched her die. That just completely stunned me. I think it was one of the key motivating experiences that led me to try gather material to tell stories of women and girls and make a book.


“Nazia is 21 years old. She has been married for two years. Her husband’s family demanded a motorcycle as part of the dowry, for which her parents paid 50,000 rupees (US $10,000). But this wasn’t enough; the husband demanded a car. The cost of a car, however, was far beyond what Nazia’s parents could afford. One day when Nazia was riding with her displeased husband on the new motorcycle, he pushed her off. She was seven months pregnant at the time. After Nazia survived the ‘accident,’ her husband tricked her into taking some medicine to help her recover. Instead of feeling better, she felt ill and went to the hospital, where she delivered a stillborn child. After Nazia was discharged from the hospital (which required her husband to sign some papers) he left without her. Nazia has been living with her mother for the past five months. She wants a divorce and the return of her dowry.”

What do you want to communicate in these portraits?

There are many reports about what’s happening to women around the world, but they’re full of statistics and as human beings, it’s hard to relate to statistics. We get overwhelmed. I try to make viewers see the women I photograph as individuals, to portray that their lives matter, that they have dignity, and that they are doing the very best they can given the circumstances. That they are not just victims, but women who have potential power to transform the world. I want my photographs to have real emotional impact and so I look for subjects that have that feeling to them.

Domestic violence

“Certain themes repeatedly surfaced from the abused women in India. First and foremost, there was a lack of law enforcement. A woman who has the courage to report her case to the police risks ridicule or even further harassment. Some of the most difficult cases for the NGOs to resolve involve women who have been abused by their husbands who are members of the police force. Even when cases are filed in the judicial system, they languish in limbo for years and years, as if time or justice were of no importance.”

How do you choose who to photograph specifically?

It’s a combination of people who have really good stories to tell or can make a very strong, compelling photograph. I could work on this book for another 10 years—I only just scratched the surface. There were certain parts of the world I never went to, one because I was never sent there, but also being a man, I wouldn’t be able to photograph women there. For example, I haven’t been to the Middle East, Pakistan, or Afghanistan because that wouldn’t have worked out.

That brings up an interesting point. As a male, have you faced any other challenges photographing women, besides access?

Not really. I felt pretty comfortable. Maybe it’s my attitude or sense of purpose that people pick up—that I’m there to do something important and something good. The only problems I experienced were in northwestern India, in Muslim areas, but I worked my way around that. (Pause.) I’m not exactly a war photographer…I have a family and I’ve been in some bad situations. If I were a single person, I’d probably take more risks. But, you know, everyone has their level of risk that they would be willing to take.


“Jolie was born and raised amid the violence in Rwanda. After both her parents died, her father’s family refused to take her in and forced her to live with another family. There, the man of the house sexually abused her, and soon she became pregnant. She was then put out on the street to fend for herself and somehow made her way to Kenya. To add further pain, Jolie’s son was born with severe medical problems and died after a three-year struggle. Somehow Jolie found Heshima Kenya, a program devoted to protecting single, orphaned, and separated women and girls, many of whom come from war-torn areas of eastern and central Africa. Heshima Kenya took Jolie in, made her a part of their extended family, and helped her develop into a skilled textile artist. Today, Jolie produces beautiful, high-quality handmade scarves for export. Her work has value, and, for the first time in her life, Jolie feels that she has value too.”

Has there been a particularly memorable woman/women that you have photographed?

There’s quite a few. There’s one story of a young woman named Jolie (above) who I met a year ago in Kenya. She was just so vital and vibrant and photogenic. I didn’t get her story until two months after I photographed her and it just completely shocked me. I think of all the people that I have photographed, she’s the best example of human resilience that I’ve ever witnessed.


“Outside of Meru, Kenya, 15-year-old Irene (left) and 16-year-old Fridah (right) with their newborns. They only attended primary school and had children out of wedlock. The clinic provided good counseling for the mothers and proper vaccinations for the newborns.”

What are some of the issues that you discuss in your book?

First, I talk about reproductive healthcare—as you know, every time a woman or a girl gets pregnant in a developing country, she’s risking her life. Scenes of women waiting at clinics are followed by examples of the consequences of not getting the care they need, including teenagers getting pregnant, fistula, and AIDS. I discuss the work being done to provide contraception and reproductive healthcare, honoring the healthcare workers, the silent heroes of this whole business. I also talk about teenage peer-sex education and female contraception. The second part of the book is probably the most emotionally challenging, as it is on violence against women. I treat that in a chronological order—child brides, dowry abuse, domestic violence, trafficking, sex workers. The next part is much more uplifting and hopeful. I talk about economic empowerment and provide examples of how girls and women are being empowered through vocational training; I highlight some programs, such as the big microfinance program in Ghana. A significant part of the book is on girls’ education.


“I visited a successful microfinance program, WomensTrust, that works in the village of Pokuase, Ghana. Sarah Ankrah, who started with a loan of $50 to support her bread-making business, is now making 8,000 loaves of bread per week, thanks to a staff of bakers and distributors. She employs a staff of eight people and has gross receipts of $1,370 per week. With her increased assets she has been able to ensure that her children remain in school and that her home has reliable electricity and potable water.”

Education is one of the main ways that girls and women can become empowered. What are some other ways?

They can be empowered economically. There’s one really good example from India, in the Gujarat area, where they have this tradition of incredible textile arts. So this woman Judy Frater (an anthropologist and artist) started an NGO and trained tribal women who were not allowed to go to school—it’s a very strict, conservative society. She trained them to be marketers and designers of their work so they were able to sell their works in high-end boutiques in Mumbai and Delhi, and even export some to Europe. These women were really happy doing the work and making a living, and their status in their community increased. Every situation is different; it doesn’t always have to be a standard education. Sometimes in certain situations, other things will work even better. There’s a whole chapter in my book on young women who have grown up in difficult, slum-like situations, but who with the help of NGOs have been able to make successful careers for themselves.


“Few actions have been proven to do more for the human race than the education of female children. Offering girls basic education enables them to make genuine choices over the kinds of lives they wish to lead. And the overwhelming benefits of educating girls extend far beyond the classroom. The impact of giving a girl in a developing country a quality education can be felt in families, communities, and future generations.”

Do you think the book has potential to be used as a tool for governments/policy-makers to pay more attention to women’s issues?

I hope so. I had this big event at the Ford Foundation in October and there were lots of women’s groups there and they thought it was fabulous; it was just what they needed. My next goal is to get these books into high school and college libraries to educate young people and create more activists. Even though a lot is being done, I never feel it’s enough to address the scale of the problem.


“Farida was born in a slum in Dar es Salaam, but today she is an English teacher. To visit her school, our two-wheel-drive vehicle struggled to negotiate the huge water-filled mud holes. When we arrived, I was stunned to see the enormous crowd of children in her classroom, who numbered well over a hundred. But Farida is not daunted neither by her enormous class, nor by her daily four-hour commute to and from her school. She was able to complete her education and become a teacher, thanks to a grant from the NGO FHI 360 and Johnson & Johnson. After two years on the job, Farida is already studying for a Master’s degree and aspires to become a school administrator. She has used her salary to build her own two-room house, and she is also supporting her younger sister so that she can complete her own education.”

Will you continue the project? What’s next?

I will present the project at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen in May 2016. I certainly want to continue and add more work to the project, but I’m going to be 71 this year and I’m at the point where I don’t want to solicit funds any more. I am actually going to do some additional documentary work in Mexico for Semillas, perhaps the foremost women’s rights organization in Mexico. Faces of Courage was heavily weighted towards Africa and Asia, and I felt that Latin America needed more coverage so I plan on doing that now.

Faces of Courage: Intimate Portraits of Women on the Edge is out now through Val de Grace Books.

All images are © 2015, Mark Tuschman from Faces of Courage: Intimate Portraits of Women on the Edge (Val de Grace Books).


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