Photographer Lee Karen Stow reflected, “A very well known photographer once said something and it stuck in my mind. She said, if something is not documented in the eyes of the world, it does not exist. These women exist. This situation exists. So I try to document it.”
For the past four years, Stow, a blond-haired Brit from Kingston-upon-Hull in Yorkshire, has been teaching the impoverished women of Freetown, Sierra Leone the art and craft of photography. She takes pictures of the women to make the world aware of the struggles that they face. On Feb. 8, these photos were presented to New College students and members of the Sarasota community in a photo presentation entitled “42: the Women of Sierra Leone.”
Stow said that her motivation for the project was based on her personal history. “Hull, my hometown, has been twinned with the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown — you’d probably say sister cities, we say twin,” she explained. “And it’s a connection to promote understanding and cultural friendships. I’d been traveling a lot especially in Africa and I’d wanted to learn more about the people in our twin city. So I set up a project that linked women in Hull with women in Freetown through photography. And I went to Freetown for the first time and taught digital photography skills to women who were interested in learning about photography. It was supposed to be a two-week project and it’s been four years plus.”
Hull has named her project “42” because it is the average life expectancy for a woman of Sierra Leone. She reflected that before she befriended the women and they became a part of her life it was merely a number, but after spending time with them and getting to glimpse into their lives, that number became even more devastating and intolerable to her.
“A year into the project in 2008, I turned 42 and I looked at my life expectancy as a woman living in the west,” she said. “It’s 83 in the UK, which is double. So, to me, straight away that’s a violation of human rights. Every person has a right to a long, healthy life. And just because I am six hours flying time away from my friends, the women in Sierra Leone, I have double the chance of living a long healthy life because I live in a different place. That’s the only thing that separates us — water and ocean.”
Women in Sierra Leone are plagued by cervical cancer, breast cancer, malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, suicide, domestic violence and often die at child birth or in road-side accidents. Stow said, “One of my ladies had a lump on her breast and [a doctor] gave her cream to rub on it. There was no biopsy facility for her to have it checked.” A friend of Francess, a student of Stow’s, was recently killed by a van that crashed into her when she was buying books from a store. These two examples reveal that the women of Sierra Leone are dying from causes that can easily be prevented. Stow quoted Amnesty International: “They are dying because society has yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.”
Stow said that teaching the women photography has given them a voice and a means to escape poverty and to improve their lives. “My students have had exhibitions in the UK,” she said. “There is a book by Francess that’s out there, you’ll see on the table. Her work is published in a book. She’ll be visiting the U.S. this year to study with the National Geographic photographers. Rebecca has built her own photo studio in her village and is earning a living from photography. She’s a single mum looking after her family.”
Stow feels that she has learned from the women. “I’ve learned about life from them,” she noted. “How little they have but they manage. You know, we have all this stuff in the west. We have clutter. We have cupboards full of stuff that we don’t need. So I don’t have as much stuff as I used to have. I know I don’t need as much food as I think I do during the day. And also, the difficulty they face and to still find it in themselves to laugh, to smile, to gossip, to dance, to sing. And they are surrounded by life and death every day and yet, they carry on, they keep going. It has made me feel so grateful for what I have. And to not take anything for granted.”
Stow aims to capture the strength and beauty of the women in her photographs rather than simply to document their lives. “My task is to try and photograph that inner-strength,” she said. “A friend once said to me, ‘you’ve chosen to do the most difficult kind of photography, you’ve chosen to photograph emotion.’”
“She focused on showing the amazing strength and resilience of these women of Sierra-Leone,” Professor of French Language and Literature Amy Reid reflected. “And that’s a message that is very important. But at the same time, the fact that you can be engaged and throw yourself into something and find a way to make meaning in your life and make it work. That’s an important lesson for us all too because it can be too easy to just get ground down by this culture of le train-train quotidien [the daily grind] — we can all get worn down by our daily responsibilities and our daily lives that you never get to look beyond the immediate laundry list of the must-do’s for the day to think about the larger picture. And I think she shows us a way that somebody can jump beyond it and do something that is very significant artistically and ‘humanistically.’ That’s an important lesson for us. That’s not the lesson she tells us she’s teaching us, but I do believe that she is teaching us that lesson.”
Reid said that she hopes that Stow can return to New College next year — perhaps with one of her students. She added that she hopes the next time Stow visits campus to be less impromptu and more publicized.
“This [recent] visit [of Stow’s] isn’t the end product but rather a step that will allow us to bring her back again and get a better sense of not only what her community arts project has done in Sierra Leone but how our community here in Sarasota can connect with that,” she said. “So it’s about building community connections.”
To view and read about Stow’s work, visit her website leekarenstow.com. Her next project is called “Fighting for Gold,” documenting a women’s boxing team in Sierra Leone that is training to qualify to fight at the Olympics.