A Conversation on Art and Social Change | Wilson Center

A Conversation on Art and Social Change

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"At the core of human rights and artistic behavior is respect for human dignity. It is this that unites art and justice," said Jane M. Saks, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media, speaking at an event cosponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Lynsey Addario, MacArthur-winning photographer and former Institute fellow, joined Saks to share striking photographs highlighting the effects of conflict on women and girls around the world.

The Power of Art

"Art is inherently political because it has the power to really engage in social justice," Saks said. The Institute that she helped found promotes art that pushes boundaries and creates conversations about peace and war, so as to "add to the accepted canon of understanding of conflict." As part of this effort, the Institute created the exhibition, "Congo Women: Portraits of War," composed of photographs by Addario and others about violence against women in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Saks hopes that these "photographs saturated with human dignity" will create awareness and, ultimately, influence policy about the conflict in the DRC. The exhibition has traveled to more than 20 locations since its opening. In May 2009 it was installed at the Senate Rotunda during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on violence against women in conflict.

Addario, who said her work is drive by a desire to "give the people a voice," has spent 15 years traveling deep into conflict zones all over the world, including Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan.

Women and Childbirth

Addario's images reveal the often shocking conditions in which women around the world give birth. In Sierra Leone, she documented 18-year old Mamma Seesay, "one of thousands of women who die in childbirth." Due to a shortage of doctors, lack of transportation, and high rates of child marriage, one in eight women in Sierra Leone die in childbirth. Afghanistan has the second highest rate of maternal mortality in the world, partly because "an Afghan woman will be pregnant up to 15 times in her life," she said. "When you watch someone who in most other developed nations would survive without question, it's just not fair."

Throughout a decade of covering women in Afghanistan, Addario has sought to provide a "balanced picture" of their lives to American audiences. Her photographs show the milestones women have achieved since the fall of the Taliban: graduating college; driving cars; becoming actors, producers, or police officers; getting married; and giving birth.

But her coverage of Afghanistan also contains stories like that of Fariba, an 11-year-old girl who doused herself with petrol and set herself on fire after being abused by her parents. The burn ward at the hospital in Kabul is full of such women who commit self-immolation "to escape their lives," said Addario. An Afghan woman's life "is worse than a donkey…there is no release for these women."

"Give Us Your Guns"

In 2009, she went to the tribal areas of Pakistan to meet the Taliban. "Wrapped up like a cigar," she posed as the wife of former New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins and went into a room of 30 Taliban fighters "armed to the teeth." The two spent the day with the Taliban and "by the end, they loved us," she said. "The whole time they just laughed at us: ‘You Americans, you give money to the Pakistani government and they give it to us!"

While covering the conflict in Darfur, Addario had to convince UN peacekeepers to drive into a Janjaweed-occupied village so that she could verify how many people had been killed. "Every time we would go towards the village, the Janjaweed would shoot at us and so [the peacekeepers] would turn the cars around and go," Addario said. To convince the peacekeepers to go in anyway, she said to the commander: "Just give us your guns. We're gonna go in ourselves if you don't." When they finally drove towards the village, "the Janjaweed set it on fire right in front of us, and we just kept driving, and when we got there they had left," she said.

Addario has spent years as a single woman traveling around the world and throughout conflict zones. "Women in Afghanistan think I'm insane," she said. "They think I have a lonely, miserable life." But she believes that as a woman working in conflict zones, she has a unique ability to access places that a man could not and a mission to tell the stories that she hears. "For me it's about showing the greater American public what's happening."

Drafted by Hannah Marqusee and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker
Geoff Dabelko, Environmental Change & Security Program, 202-691-4178