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Showing the women beneath the scars

Ann-Christine Woehrl and her book IN/VISIBLE. Photo supplied
Ann-Christine Woehrl and her book IN/VISIBLE. Photo supplied

Showing the women beneath the scars

Between 2011 and 2014, German photographer Ann-Christine Woehrl shot portraits of 48 survivors of acid and fire attacks in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Pakistan, Iran and India, working closely with the Acid Survivors Trust International. The results have been turned into a book, IN/VISIBLE – published in 2014 by Austria’s Edition Lammerhuber – and a travelling exhibition that has visited Germany, France and Colombia. Ahead of IN/VISIBLE’s opening tonight at Phnom Penh’s Meta House, Will Jackson spoke to Woehrl via email.

What do you hope to achieve with the project and can you explain the title of the exhibition?
My intention in the project is to show the women as survivors and heroines, rather than victims. This is about their strength to move on in life. So the title of the exhibition refers to the fact that the women have become invisible within their societies and therefore stands the dash: the project wants to make [the survivors] visible in the way that the women have a platform to make themselves visible again.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Sokneang was working in a Preah Vihear karaoke club when a customer's wife threw acid on her. Ann-Christine Woehrl/Echo Photojournalism

What were the photoshoots like?
The portraits sessions were taken in all very distinct circumstances. As for Cambodia, I had a very close contact thanks to Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity and Erin Bourgois. Chantheoun, the woman I followed closely for some days, was very open minded towards me and let me share her life and introduced me to all her family members.

Why did you shoot the women on black backgrounds?
For the portraits, I portrayed them all with a black backdrop as I wanted to isolate them from their environment and society and just allow them to show themselves as women, with all their dignity and pride. Moreover, I followed one of those women in each country more closely in their daily life to show what it really means to live with that stigma and to show also their strength and courage in how the women moved on in their lives.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Sidra was at a friend's house when her friend's brother molested her and then attacked her with acid. Ann-Christine Woehrl/Echo Photojournalism

What do you think people in general can learn from these women?
By looking at the photos, the audience will hopefully overcome their feelings of discomfort and look at the women and at their fate and their tremendous courage and strength to move on in their lives. We all can learn that we are the ones making other people outcasts and deepening the scars, and that we should acknowledge the women as who they are.

You’ve photographed acid and fire attack victims across several countries. Are there any aspects of acid attacks that tend to be the same everywhere?
I think that, in most of the countries, the driving force of such attacks are hurt feelings – jealousy, rejection – and it is still predominantly gender-based violence, although in Cambodia, Uganda and Colombia almost 40 per cent of acid attacks are reported against men.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
When she was 16, Christine was attacked by an ex-girlfriend of her fiance, Moses, who stood by her. Ann-Christine Woehrl/Echo Photojournalism

What are you doing with the proceeds of the book?
The book has been fully financed by the publisher and as mentioned above it is not a book that sells enormously, therefore I haven’t been touching any money from the sales yet. My contribution to help the cause so far was selling edition prints of the series, and a percentage goes to ASTI and through it to the partner organisations and to encourage the women to [create] arts and crafts to be sold at the museum shops and generate money for the survivors.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Ann-Christine Woehrl will speak at the opening of the IN/VISIBLE exhibition 8pm tonight (Saturday) at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard. The evening will also feature films about acid survivors in Cambodia and elsewhere.

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