Child bride photographer Stephanie Sinclair receives Niedringhaus photojournalism award | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 08.06.2017
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Child bride photographer Stephanie Sinclair receives Niedringhaus photojournalism award

US photographer Stephanie Sinclair gives young, vulnerable women a voice. She tells DW what motivates her to risk her life and why the US bears a special responsibility when it comes to defending women's rights.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephanie Sinclair has traveled the world for 15 years, photographing girls and young women who have been victims of violence, genital mutilation or forced marriage. Whether in Afghanistan, Yemen or India, her renowned photo series "Too Young to Wed" graphically details how child marriage destroys the lives of young girls.

She also founded an NGO, similarly called Too Young to Wed, to directly help the subjects of her photographs - including, for example, Boko Haram victims in Nigeria. Too Young to Wed has offered them school scholarships and workshops on photography and female empowerment.

Sinclair will be honored with the 2017 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award at a ceremony in Washington, DC, on June 8. The award is named in memory of the German war photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner who was tragically shot dead in Afghanistan in 2014.

DW: What effect do photos have on you and what made you choose this medium?

Stephanie Sinclair: For me, photographs are one of these ways that you really see the communication between the photographer and the subject. And I think it is a collaborative process that I have always found really beautiful. It's like an intimate relationship that is formed; every photograph is made of somebody and because of that, it communicates with the public and I find that really beautiful.

Why did you specialize in issues like gender, child marriage, genital mutilation and acid attacks? Was there a pivotal moment for you or have you always been interested in these challenging topics?

My mom was a very strong woman. She really fought hard for her education; her family was not supportive of her when she wanted to go back to school in her 30s. They made fun of her and I really saw, when she changed her life from being a secretary to pursuing a degree in graphic design, how much that impacted her self esteem and her work.

It really made me understand the power of education for women and girls. When I started working in places where girls didn't have those opportunities, I gravitated towards those issues because I grew up with such an intense role model. 

How can photography have an impact on politics?

Girls undergoing rites of passage in Sierra Leone

Girls undergoing rites of passage in Sierra Leone

I think photography can have a big political impact. It depends on how it is used. I don't think it is enough to just take the photograph, I think that the follow-up is very important. That means making sure that the work is published in media that can reach people and working with partners that can build campaigns around them.

How do you gain access to the individuals you have photographed all over the world?

Access is always difficult because of the sensitive topics. But I really find that people are wanting to do what is best for their communities and I tell them how child marriage and these traditions harm their communities, perpetuate poverty, and make girls more vulnerable to maternal mortality. Their children also get injured and they are born premature and sometimes don't make it.

So we talk a lot before these photographs are taken and I show them the work I have done. And I think they see that I try to do this with the most respect possible. Some of them have seen some of the other pictures and have been moved by them in the past.

Access is only granted if the community accepts you, and if there are people in the community who accept you and who share your desire to help get these issues out to the public.

Sisters Yagana, 21, Yakaka 19, and Falimata, 14, were held captive by Boko Haram militants for years until managing to escape

Sisters Yagana, 21, Yakaka 19, and Falimata, 14, were held captive by Boko Haram militants for years until managing to escape

In your work, you reveal the challenges women face all over the world, but what about women in your own country? President Trump has cut government support to women's health programs, for example. What is your opinion on this?

I think our current political situation is really a horrible thing for women globally. I am not sure how people can have such a lack of compassion for what girls are going through. I think that many countries around the world look to us for leadership and the protection of human rights and girls' rights, so if we don't make this a priority, it will set an example for other countries.

I think that girls need access to family planning and to maternal health care. Our country defunded UNFPA, which is awful because they are the only organization providing that in places like Nigeria, where these girls are abducted by Boko Haram, forced into marriage and forced into giving birth. These are the most vulnerable girls in the world, and these are the types of girls affected by these policies.

Would you ever consider doing a project in the US?

Yes, I will be focusing more on the US in the next couple of years. I am a new mother, so at the moment I am having some family time, but when I get back to working again I definitely will be focusing more on the US in my work.

Did you know Anja Niedringhaus personally?

Anja Niedringhaus, 2005

Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed in Afghanistan in 2014

Yes, we met several times. We weren't close, but of course I knew her work and we shared a lot of mutual friends. She was headed further down the frontline and I was a little further back, but she was an inspiration for many photographers - not just women. She was a real leader. I am very grateful to have met her.

Would you say that your work and her work are comparable?

I would say that we shared similar visions of what we wanted to happen in our work. We both took the risks we did because we believed that the power of photography could inspire change - and would. And Anja definitely put her life on the line by having these stories told. I think there is humanity in both of our work that we both hoped people would see and feel towards our subjects.

Do you think being a parent has changed your view on the things that you are covering?

It's only been three months, so I am not sure. My kids are both visually impaired and have other issues. They reflect in some ways the most vulnerable girls I have been covering and I want them to be proud and feel empowered just like I want girls around the world to be empowered though my work.


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