Picturing Aftermath – an interview with Anne Ackermann of the Gulu Project
Article by Anna Kucma
The Gulu Project follows the aftermath of the LRA civil war in Northern Uganda through the stories of four women who survived abduction by the LRA and are now trying to live normal lives. I sat down with Anne to talk to her about the project, and understand how the body of work that was recently being exhibited at Makerere Art Gallery in Kampala came to life.
How long have you been working on this project?
In 2011 I was invited to teach a photography workshop in Uganda, and I visited the country for the first time. While here I learned about the LRA conflict in Northern Uganda, and decided that I’d like to shoot a project about it. I applied for and received a grant from VG Bildkunst that allowed me to start working on the project in the beginning of 2012. So it has been two years of traveling and spending a considerable amount of time in Gulu in particular and Northern Uganda in general.
What drew you to this difficult subject?
I was interested in the complexity of an aftermath situation and in seeing how people pick up the pieces after everything in their lives has been lost. I like working with women, and so in my work I often focus on female characters. In this particular case I wanted to document how women are coping with the aftermath of the conflict in Northern Uganda, especially because their conditions differ considerably in terms of material complications and specific sexual traumas when compared with those of similarly affected men.
While I was doing my research I also noticed that there was very little coverage of the place of women in aftermath situations, so I really wanted to make sure that these voices would be heard.
Have you only followed the stories of the 4 women featured in the exhibition?
No. Actually the exhibition is an extract from a bigger project with multiple storylines, which include Landscapes of War, where I documented the massacre sites, Beauty Therapy, a series about female landmine survivors, and Gulu Youth, which looks into the lives and challenges of young people in this aftermath situation. This project also follows male characters. The selection for the exhibition, however, are stories and photographs that are closer to my heart, and it represents the reportage-style photography, which I enjoy the most.
What were the challenges of working on the Gulu project?
The subject I decided to concentrate on is immense and multifaceted, so first I took a considerable amount of time to get to know Gulu and just to talk to people. Then I had to decide whom to work with and also choose my focus. That meant, of course, that some threads that I followed in the beginning were eventually left out.
Working with African women who went through a conflict, it was challenging not to victimize them or look at them from my Western point of view. I see them as strong people, and that’s how I was trying to portray them. I wanted to avoid stereotypes and get away from one–sided perspectives, which would be the easiest way to go about it.
And of course there were many more down to earth challenges that one has to overcome while working with photographic storytelling, likefor instance the language barrier or getting access to the community.
Why did you decide to work with former child soldiers?
As Dr. Holly Porter, the lead researcher for northern Uganda at the Justice and Security Research Program, put it during her opening remarks at my exhibition, there is a stereotype of “the child soldier as a small, black boy with big eyes and an even larger gun”. That is very misleading. Girls and women were often not only sex slaves and “wives”, but very often they were also forced to carry a gun, to fight and to kill. What is more, the stigma of coming back to the community/society is much higher for them in many ways comparing to their male counterparts. Being a woman myself it seemed like a natural choice to explore this more.
Are there any more exhibitions of the Gulu project coming up?
Nothing has been planned so far, but I would love to show it in Europe. I believe that it is important to make it travel outside of Africa. I would also love to have a publication in book format.
Has this project changed your approach to photography in any way?
What I learned as a photographer is that it is really worthwhile to pick a subject and make the time to follow it over an extended period. That way one can develop a mature body of work. When I work on an assignment it’s normally quite brief and there’s no time to look closer into what I’m photographing. I found it very reassuring that there was always something that I could go back to and truly get to know the subject.
What will you be working on next?
The project I already started to work on has the working title “Sex for Fish”. Again, I will be working with women, this time concentrating on the Lake Victoria Basin. Sex for fish is a practice of dependency where women are forced to pay for fish partially with money and partially with sex. I want to concentrate on the role the women have in the microsociety of the lake’s population, and on the implications of this practice. At the moment I want to shoot large format portraits, preferably on film, but that might of course change as the project progresses.
To find out more about the project and Anne Ackermann please visit her website.
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