Ann-Chrstine Woehrl’s In/Visible: An international project that seeks to give voice to victims of gender based violence and acid attacks (PHOTOS).

The Struggles and Heroic Strength of Women Who’ve Been Attacked With Acid

The Struggles and Heroic Strength of Women Who’ve Been Attacked With Acid

Behold
The Photo Blog
July 8 2015 11:12 AM

The Struggles and Heroic Strength of Women Who’ve Been Attacked With Acid

IN/VISIBLE
Nusrat, 32, Pakistan. Nusrat married into a big family with the expectation that her brother would marry her husband’s sister. He chose a different wife. In retaliation, Nusrat’s husband and brother-in-law attacked her. “First I didn’t know what had happened. Then my clothes started falling off me. My body felt as if it was on fire. When I smelt the fumes, I realized it was acid. I started screaming and ran outside, where my brother-in-law threw more acid into my face. I was screaming so much that people came over. My brother-in-law told them that I had thrown acid on myself. My neighbors took me to hospital. With the help of the ASF I was trained at a beauty parlor. So now I can make everyone who has helped and comforted me more beautiful.”

Ann-Christine Woehrl/Echo Photojournalism

The number of women around the world who have been victims of acid and fire attacks is hard to determine since many cases go unreported. Many times the result of gender-based violence, the effects of the attacks are devastating. The women are often blinded, maimed, disfigured, and left to survive with the physical damage and overwhelming psychological scars.

Four years ago, Ann-Christine Woehrl wanted to give voice to women who had been victims of those attacks and other forms of violence to shed light on their struggles, their hope, and what Woehrl called “their heroic strength.” The work, a mix of portraits and documentary imagery, includes women from six countries: Bangladesh, Uganda, Cambodia, Pakistan, Nepal, and India.

Woehrl began the project in India when she visited with doctors in a hospital who were treating the physical damage to the women caused by attacks. While witnessing firsthand the pain and suffering left an impression on Woehrl, she wanted to learn more about how these women would rebuild their lives and cope with the emotional fallout after being released. The photographs she has made since then are part of her series “In/Visible,” which was was also published as a book last year by Edition Lammerhuber.

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Left: Makima. A neighbor wanted to marry Makima but she refused so his mother poured acid on her face. Makima’s dream is to become a police officer to fight for justice. Right: Sokneang. Sokneang worked as a singer at a karaoke club in Preah Vihear, Cambodia, in 2005. One evening, as she was watching TV, a woman threw acid on her. The woman was thought to be the jealous wife of a man who visited the club regularly. The Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity trained the 33-year-old as a tailor.

Ann-Christine Woehrl/Echo Photojournalism

IN/VISIBLE
Chantheoun, 38, Cambodia. Chantheoun had an affair with a married man. When his wife found out, she and three of her relatives drove past her and threw two liters of acid on her. “Six years after the attack, the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity found me and gave me a job as a cook. Before I was attacked, I just wanted to earn a lot of money to buy my own house, some land, and cows for my mother. But my life was turned upside-down. The words goodness and beauty have lost their meaning for me.”

Ann-Christine Woehrl/Echo Photojournalism

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Left: Christine and Moses. When Christine was 16, she was attacked by the ex-girlfriend of her boyfriend Moses. Moses stood by her and today they have a little daughter. Her perpetrator was sentenced to eight years in prison. Christine stays in the house most of the time so she doesn’t have to show herself in public. Right: Sidra. Sidra was staying overnight at a friend’s house in 2011 when she woke up in the middle of the night to find her friend’s brother trying to molest her. She started shouting. The boy’s mother was afraid that she’d cause a scandal and told him to throw acid on the 15-year-old girl. The attack left her nearly blind. The perpetrator was sentenced to 25 years in prison and his mother got three.

Ann-Christine Woehrl/Echo Photojournalism

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To begin, Woehrl contacted local NGOs. They helped her communicate with women when language was an issue and also to help build a sense of trust around Woehrl’s project. She also felt her willingness to listen to the women’s stories, many of whom felt a strong sense of shame or who had become a burden to their families, added to that trust, although she was sensitive to their situations. 

“I didn’t want to bring back bad memories for them,” Woehrl said. “But [talking] can also be liberation, a relief when you can express yourself.”

Woehrl focused on victims of acid and fire attacks as well as women who had tried to commit suicide because they felt trapped in violent situations. She took their portraits on black backgrounds—she felt a safe color would allow the women to show them in the manner in which they wished to be seen.

Working with the women and getting to know them also helped Woehrl overcome her own hang-ups about communicating with people who are often seen as outcasts in society. “You see the person, it’s not about the appearance anymore,” she said. “When they speak about their trauma, there are moments when you have to keep your strength and not pity them and just be encouraging, to acknowledge them. It just made me humble about life and filled me with an admiration about the survival of these women.”

“I feel so grateful to be in photography and to have a sense of what I’m doing, not just about fulfilling my own creative language; I feel a responsibility for these women. ... I realize I’m doing this to give a platform, to make them visible and to give them a voice to express themselves.”

“In/Visible” is on view at Galerie Fait & Cause in Paris through July 18 and Museum Natur und Mensch in Freiburg, Germany, through Sept. 20.

IN/VISIBLE
Farida, 40, Bangladesh. When Farida was 24, her husband, fearing she would leave him, threw acid on her while she was sleeping. “I have lost everything, not only my body. I have lost my dignity. I depend on others. I cannot live like a normal human being. This is not a life any more.”

Ann-Christine Woehrl/Echo Photojournalism

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.