Forty-two: Women of Sierra Leone

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

image sourceLee Karen Stow

Photographer Lee Karen Stow has worked in more than 60 countries as both a journalist and later as a photographer, often dipping in out of people's lives as assignments dictated. Yet five years ago she began work on a two-week project that has now become a permanent fixture in her life.

Stow was born in Hull, the home of William Wilberforce - a leading voice against slavery, and in 2007 the city commemorated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in a big way. Despite her extensive travels, Stow had never been to Freetown in Sierra Leone, a city twinned with her hometown, and this sparked an idea to instigate a visual conversation through photography around this issue.

Despite the town twinning, it seems that for many residents of Hull their knowledge of the country was much the same as mine. A country ravaged by a civil war that ended a decade ago, and subsequently the trial of Liberia's ex-president Charles Taylor, who is on trial for war crimes for his involvement in that conflict.

Stow wanted to rectify this and invited the women of Hull to interpret the city's council themes from that year, pride, freedom, belief and so on, through photography. "My idea was to get the resulting pictures printed as greeting cards and send to women in Sierra Leone," said Stowe. "But I managed to get some Arts Council funding to hand deliver them and to take half a dozen digital cameras to run workshops in Freetown." This was a pivotal moment.

Stow headed to Freetown hoping that a handful of women would find time to attend her workshops, yet more than 50 arrived, with others being added to an ever expanding waiting list. "This is a place where some people are starving, yet they were signing up to learn photography," said Stow. "They told me they just wanted to learn any skills that may help lift themselves out of poverty."

The workshop was a success and the pictures printed before going on show in Hull, with further funding paying for three of the women from Freetown to make the opening of the exhibition. This was essential said Stow, otherwise it wouldn't have been a two-way conversation. "The project was supposed to end there, but I wanted to do more and these women wanted to learn more photography as well," Stow told me.

And so the project grew and is now called 42, taking its name from the life expectancy of women in Sierra Leone at that time. Added poignancy came from the fact that Stow turned 42 around that time, and had she been born in Freetown then the implications are easy to see. The 42 project is not a static one, and is forever in flux, as new pictures are taken others make way.

I asked Stow why Sierra Leone? What was it that made her settle on Freetown, rather than move on to the next story? "In Sierra Leone I saw 'hope' in a way I've never seen it before," she said. "An urgency and a hunger for hope, and I saw this strength particularly in the women. A real, powerful hope that their lives will, in some way, get better. I think that's what keeps me attached to the women and the country, as it's something we all have in varying degrees: hope about our lives and the future. It's kind of infectious when you see and feel it so powerfully."

image sourceLee Karen Stow
image captionPhotographer Francess Ngaboh-Smart undertakes a commission to photograph fashions at a boutique in Sierra Leone

Through the years the story has progressed and a core number of the original participants have continued that conversation. Two now work as photographers in Sierra Leone. A number of others have had work exhibited and one, Francess Ngaboh-Smart, won a scholarship to study at the Pacific North West Arts School in Washington State with National Geographic photographer Sam Abell.

Yet despite these gains Stow sees the difficulties and barriers to success. Expensive and slow internet connection, power outages and surges or cultural barriers are just some of the obstacles that have to be addressed by the photographers.

"Do I buy food for the family or do I send some images to Lee for critique and to add to the catalogue of our work? These are the questions they have to ask themselves, it is as raw as that," said Stow.

She continues, "One of the working photographers, Rebecca Kamara, has built a studio in her village, and this is a place where there is often no electricity. But we are slowly getting better kit to some of the women with five now equipped with laptops. Though there are setbacks. In January Francess was robbed, but we managed to re-equip her by rallying around for support."

image sourceLee Karen Stow
image captionRebecca Kamara in her village studio. Rebecca has set up her own photography business in her village in Sierra Leone.

"The photographers are now becoming more self-sufficient and funding themselves through photography. One major problem they face is being paid for their work and they now know to draw up contracts before undertaking the work."

One hotel owner refused to pay up after commissioning pictures, and recently a small European NGO went to the trouble of requesting to see the portfolio of one of the photographers, and yet in the end they said they had no money to pay.

"Credit and publicity for the photographer doesn't put food on the table," said Stow. "It is very disappointing; the whole idea for the project is to train indigenous photographers because I believe we do get a more balanced view of the world that way. Gone are the days of the wealthy Westerner taking pictures of poor people in Africa."

Stow's other work also continues the link between the countries, as alongside her latest project UK on women boxers in Yorkshire, she worked with Sierra Leone's women's boxing team as they trained in preparation for qualifying rounds for the 2012 Olympics. Sadly lack of support within the country meant they were unable to travel, and even worse, Lee's friend Grace, head of the women's boxing team, passed away, aged 43. The team however continues despite these setbacks.

image sourceLee Karen Stow
image captionGrace Brown (left), head of the women's boxing team in fighting form is seen here with Lee. Grace passed away at the age of 43 on 29 February 2012.

Stow can't leave her work in Freetown alone now and feels she has much to do. She has been asked to replicate the project elsewhere, in Nigeria and Liberia, yet notes: "There's only one of me. It's a small slow project with a lasting impact."

That impact can be seen in the photographs that are on show at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and in the training and mentoring being carried out some of those Stow has taught. They are passing that knowledge on, offering more women a chance to learn a skill and opening their eyes to possible futures.

You can see more of Lee Karen Stow's work on her website and pictures of the women involved in the project under the banner, Women with cameras. Stowe's Girls in the Ring, The Female Boxers of Yorkshire series will be on show at Hand Made in Bradford from 15 June 2012.

image sourceLee Karen Stow
image sourceLee Karen Stow
image sourceLee Karen Stow
image sourceLee Karen Stow