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Afghanistan: A Cry for Help

Interview with Stephanie Sinclair

Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair has been documenting the plight of women in Afghanistan since 2003. Here she talks with FRONTLINE/World’s Mimi Chakarova about the effects of a patriarchal society, where girls younger than 10 are sold into marriage and women are increasingly resorting to self-immolation to escape domestic and social abuse.

photo by stephanie sinclair, photographer

The Photographer
Stephanie SinclairPhotojournalist Stephanie Sinclair is known for her work on gender issues and human rights. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, and Marie Claire, and German magazine’s Geo and Stern, among others. In the past year, Sinclair was awarded UNICEF Photo of the Year, the Alexia Foundation for World Peace professional grant, and the 2008 FreeLens Award from the Lumix Festival for Young Photojournalism for her work on the international issue of child marriage. Sinclair was also part of the Chicago Tribune team that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for documenting problems in the airline industry.

Visit Stephanie Sinclair's Web site

Mimi Chakarova: How did you begin the story on self-immolation in Afghanistan?

Stephanie Sinclair: I’ve been working in Afghanistan for a long time, since about 2003. I was working for Marie Claire magazine
when I was asked to do a story about women who were setting themselves on fire. They were doing it for a variety of reasons. One young woman set herself on fire because she broke her husband’s television set. I was very moved by what was happening and wanted
to cover more of these women’s stories to understand why this was taking place. I’ve never known a group of people to do something so drastic. So I kept going back and trying to learn what was so bad in their lives that they would want to burn themselves.

What was your understanding of why women do this?
I’m not an anthropologist or an expert, but I can say that it seemed to be the effect of the patriarchal society and women just not having any value. They were basically working as household servants without being given the opportunity of an education.

But why self-immolation?
I believe they choose this form of suicide because I think it’s just what’s around them. They cook all day. They have these kerosene containers. They don’t have access to pills or anything that people would use in other societies. Most of them don’t survive. Once you get a certain amount of your body burnt it’s very unlikely that your body can recover. And most of these women pour the kerosene over their chests, so they end up with significant burns all over their bodies.

"I don’t want to come across as berating a society. Every culture has pluses and minuses. But there is a serious gender disparity without a doubt and it’s something that absolutely needs to be addressed."
- Stephanie Sinclair

Some of these images are very graphic. How willing were the women you met at the hospital burn ward to be photographed?
I know that women were very ashamed and afraid after they had done this to themselves.
In one instance, one woman’s husband invited me in and was pointing for me to take photographs of her. In that society, women do whatever their husbands tell them to do. So she didn’t even say anything to me. She knew I was there and also knew that her husband wanted me to take the photographs.

Can you talk about domestic violence and the stories women shared with you?
Domestic violence is very common in Afghanistan. In fact, even my translators -- very nice men -- if you asked them what they would do if a female member got out of line, they would openly say they would hit their wives. This is even more the case in households in rural areas. One of the reasons why I wanted to cover the issue of early marriage in these areas is because the girls are so young when they are married off that they’re not properly trained how to take care of the household. They are not educated. So they end up not doing a good job. And so I think this also leads to the beatings. I think they are interrelated.

You have a series of photographs that show daily life of young women in Afghanistan. Did you sense that things were changing for the better?
One photo is of a karate class that had just opened not too long ago. And it was packed with students. The young woman in the photo was just practicing after class with her instructor. I do think there’s hope. But it’s a long process that requires the effort of both men and women. Women are starting to understand that they have rights to seek education and not to believe everything that is told to them in the house.

photo by stephanie sinclair, photographer

How did you become a photographer? Why did you choose this medium for the stories that interest you?
Well, I started photography because my mother was a painter and a graphic artist. And so I was always impressed that she loved her work so much and was very passionate about it. She would stay up working and doing projects and was very excited about her life, and she had gone back to school. She was a housewife and just worked as a secretary in the beginning. She then went back to school and started to learn and follow her passion of painting and graphic design. Just to see that change in her really made me appreciate the difference between doing something you love and doing something just for work. And I fell in love with journalism at a very early age but I wasn’t actually a very good writer so I picked up a camera just to see if it would be a better solution. And I’m also not a very good drawer or a good artist. I can barely draw stick figures. So yeah, photography turned out to be the right fit.

What are you hoping to address by documenting these issues?
I don’t want to come across as berating a society. Every culture has pluses and minuses. But there is a serious gender disparity without a doubt and it’s something that absolutely needs to be addressed. Studies show that if you take out half a society from being able to help a country prosper, it tends to suffer, so fixing the situation for women and giving them their rights tends to help the whole community and the whole country, not just the individuals.

Can you recollect a story from working in Afghanistan that stands out for you?
When I work in Afghanistan I have to wear a headscarf, because you can’t just walk around without a headscarf, especially in rural areas. This one day my headscarf had slipped back so I was putting it back on. And the women pulled it back off me and wanted to make sure they had a photograph with me without it on. Even when I think I’m dressed very conservatively, I’m still not wearing the full burka. I was walking by a group of women in a park in Herat and they were saying in Dari, “Ah, I can’t believe she’s walking around that way. It must feel so good.”