Sierra Leonean Women in Pictures Worth A Thousand Words

Baltimore, Md 3/8/2013--To mark International Women's Day,  I celebrate Sierra Leone and one of the most powerful  advocates of Sierra Leonean women.

Meet Lee Karen Stow,  the inspirational photographer and photojournalist behind the '42' Women of Sierra Leone exhibition and project, which  paid tribute to the strength, resilience and beauty of the women of Sierra Leone.

"A year into the project I turned 42 and I looked at my life expectancy as a woman living in the West and it's 83, which is almost double [life expectancy for women in Sierra Leone was just 42 in 2007]. So I saw this as a violation of human rights actually, the right of every woman everywhere to have the opportunity to lead a long, healthy and fulfilling life," Stow told the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, where the 42 exhibition was launched to coincide with the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.

42 ran from March 2011 through June 2012.

Prior to the exhibition, Stow specialized in long-term projects on women's issues and women's stories worldwide. In 2007, she began a two-week workshop to photograph the women of Sierra Leone.

Why Sierra Leone? Although it wasn't unusual for a woman who has visited more than 60 countries there was something special about this assignment.

Stow was born in Hull, the home of William Wilberforce - a leading voice against slavery," wrote Phil Coomes for the BBC. (April 25, 2012)

Through the efforts of men such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe, British philanthropists founded the "Province of Freedom" in 1787 which later became Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone.  Hull and Freetown were officially twinned on 25 October 1980.

The aim of the twinning was to stimulate and foster commercial, educational and cultural links between the two cities, as well as promote friendship and understanding between Hull and Freetown. The twinning spurred a multitude of partnership projects including a long running church initiative, schools partnership schemes, endless fund raising initiatives, and of course a cross-cultural women's photography project. (Twinned cities Hull and Freetown celebrate 30 years)

"But for many residents of Hull their knowledge of the country was much the same as mine," Coomes wrote. "A country ravaged by a civil war that ended a decade ago," adding "Stow wanted to rectify this and invited the women of Hull to interpret the city's council themes from that year, pride, freedom, belief and so on, [for the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce's role in the abolition of the British and U.S. Slave Trade] through photography.

 "My idea was to get the resulting pictures printed as greeting cards and send to women in Sierra Leone," Stow told Coomes. "But I managed to get some Arts Council funding to hand deliver them and to take half a dozen digital cameras to run workshops in Freetown."

Stow headed to Freetown hoping that a handful of women would find time to attend her workshops, yet more than 50 arrived, with others being added to an ever expanding waiting list. "This is a place where some people are starving, yet they were signing up to learn photography," said Stow. "They told me they just wanted to learn any skills that may help lift themselves out of poverty." (Forty-two: Women of Sierra Leone)

And so was born  "a long running documentary project called '42'" Stow explained. “An evolving collection of 42 images of the women and their daily lives.”

While in Sierra Leone, Stow stayed with women in their homes, lived with them, made field trips and also taught the women digital photography.

“Some of the women are earning incomes through photography as professional photographers now in Sierra Leone. Rebecca, one of my students, will be with me to open the exhibition '42' at the International Slavery Museum, then Frances will be coming over later in the summer to take part in the Look11 International Photography Festival in Liverpool.” Stow said.
“It's just a joy to work with these women and to share skills, which is what we're doing - sharing skills in photography but also sharing skills in life and experiences as well because I learn more from the women than I think they learn from me about photography.”

Rebecca's story is on Stow's Vimeo space

Since discovering photography in 2007, Rebecca, a young woman and mother living in a rural village in Sierra Leone, West Africa, realized photography could provide an income for her family in a country regarded as one of the poorest in the world. Despite limited funds and no electricity, Rebecca markets herself as a photographer to schools, and for weddings, sports days and anniversaries. She has built her own photography studio and receives help and training through the Women with Cameras project set up by Lee Karen Stow

Photos below are from '42' Women of Sierra Leone - an exhibition of 42 portraits of the women of Sierra Leone, by Lee Karen Stow.


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