Fatima, now 17, was eating dinner with her family in Nigeria two years ago when she heard the gunshots. “Unknown to us, the village had been surrounded and was being invaded,” she says. “We covered ourselves with [a] mattress and cried for help to no avail.” Fatima and her mother fled into the bush, where they were separated; they didn’t see each other again for 18 months.
Fatima – and other women in conflict zones – are often perceived as victims. They may be in many cases, but they also hold multiple and sometimes conflicting identities: as fighters, breadwinners and leaders. Photographer Robin Hammond sought to capture the many roles they play in his series of portraits, “Making the Invisible Visible,” which had its first public showing this past week at the Women Deliver 2019 Global Conference in Vancouver, Canada.
The project, supported in part by the International Committee of the Red Cross, depicts 30 women living in four countries with recent histories of violence: Iraq, Nigeria, Peru and the Philippines. Hammond says his goal is “to present a more nuanced view of the roles women play [during conflicts]” – of the “invisible” lives they lead.
The women in the portraits are old and young, happy and sad, thoughtful and angry. Some were photographed while conflict was ongoing; some many years later.
In each portrait, the woman stands in front of a fabric that is relevant to her life. “Sometimes, the material was something they’d carried across borders or [during] years of conflict,” Hammond says. “These were artifacts, basically, that helped to tell their story.” Often rich and colorful, the fabrics also serve as compelling backdrops.
Luzmila Chiricente Mahuanca is a community leader from the Asháninka indigenous group in Peru, which was swept up in the internal war that began in 1980s. She chose a patterned blanket from her home. Mahuanca’s son, Beto, was captured by an armed group decades ago; she still cries when she thinks about him. “During the armed violence, I was a [community] leader and still am. [But] I was also a victim of the violence because I lost my son when he was just 15,” she says.
One portrait shows a 50-year-old woman from Iraq who suffered severe burns on her face and arms after her house in Mosul was hit by mortar fire. Behind her is the blanket that was in her room in the hospital. The woman, who asked not to be named because she fears for her safety, stayed at her house to make sure her three children, trapped in rubble, were rescued before seeking treatment for her own burns.
In her portrait, Hozan Badeea Sindi, 27, a medical intern at the West Erbil Emergency Hospital during the Battle of Mosul in 2017, stands by the blanket she slept with when she was on call as wounded victims were brought in for care.
“You’d see blood everywhere,” Sindi remembers two years later in an interview with NPR. “It was like a scene from a movie when the director tries to exaggerate, but it’s real. Every second, you lose a patient—we just had to keep [going.]”
But Sindi’s months at the hospital gave her hope as well. She is a Kurd, an ethnic minority in Iraq that has a history of conflict with the government. Erbil is located in a Kurdish region. Yet when she was at the hospital, she was treating largely Arab-Iraqi people. “The people coming from Mosul were all Arab, but you would see no racism [on either side],” she says. “[Conflict] is the only time when the truth reveals itself – which is that we are all the same.”
And even in the midst of conflict, joy can be found. One of Hammond’s favorite photographs depicts a young Filipina girl standing by a sunflower-covered bedspread with a smile on her face. She and her family fled the fighting between government forces and Islamic militants in Marawi in 2017; she asked not to be named because of fears for her safety.
“There’s an expectation [that] if you photograph conflict you must show people are living in misery. But there are still kids playing and getting on with ordinary life,” says Hammond.
“Her father had been arrested for suspicion of being part of ISIS. And [yet] her bedding was full of sunflowers.”
Susie Neilson is an intern on NPR’s Science Desk. Find her on Twitter at @susieneilson.