Marilyn Monroe famously claimed “Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world”. However, two exhibitions that have opened recently on Liverpool’s waterfront show that if you give a girl a camera then she can change the world.
Brutal Exposure: the Congo at the International Slavery Museum features photographs taken by Alice Seeley Harris when she and her husband were working as missionaries in the Congo Free State in the early 1900s. They became active human rights campaigners after witnessing first hand the atrocities carried out in the name of King Leopold II.
Alice’s photographs revealed to the world the shocking truth of exploitation, murder and slavery in the Congo. The author Mark Twain described her Kodak Brownie camera as the only witness that King Leopold couldn’t bribe. Her arresting images illustrated a lecture that toured Europe and the US to raise public and political awareness. This was probably the first photographic campaign in support of human rights, and led to Alice becoming a director of the Anti-Slavery Society, later Anti-Slavery International.
This determination and spirit is also evident in the work of Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia, who fought to expose the corruption of the Mafia in the 1970s and 80s. Her photographs can be seen in the exhibition Breaking the Code of Silence at the Open Eye Gallery. At a talk on the eve of the exhibition opening Letizia described how, even when she felt scared and sickened by the scenes of violence around her, she still felt compelled to take photographs in order to show the world what was happening in her beloved city of Palermo. A passionate woman, she said that she would always stay and fight for her little part of the world, and said that if everyone did the same then real change could be possible.
If you haven’t seen these two exhibitions then I suggest they would make a fitting day out for International Women’s Day this weekend, on Saturday 8 March. There are two special events for International Women’s Day at the International Slavery Museum on Saturday. One of them, a talk by Women for Women International at 1.30pm, brings the story of inspiring women photographers right up to date.
The charity Women for Women International works with socially excluded women in eight countries where war and conflict have devastated lives and communities, including eastern Congo. Last week Mukonondo’s story of how they changed her life was featured on the blog. In the Brutal Exposure exhibition’s resource area you can see a short film of a photographic project that Women for Women International worked on with women in the eastern Congo, in which they portray their dreams and aspirations. A simple but powerful idea, when you realise that the things they dream of – like running water, an education and food for their children, or the right to live in peace – are things that most of us take for granted.
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