Storytelling sits at the heart of what it means to be human. It anchors our very existence through shared experiences that are unique and universal, inspiring imagination and the expression of emotions while offering interpretations of the world around us, and when we look up, divining the cosmos.
One Person Crying: Women and War, my global photo essay spanning 35-years of my photography, was born out of two important aspects of my life. The first, working as a photojournalist and documentary photographer, I recognised that the women’s perspective on their experiences wrought by war and conflict was underreported. The second was the reverberations from The Holocaust.
This project, which has been an international travelling exhibition since 2012 and is a forthcoming book, took me on an unexpected journey to 12 countries while I photographed and interviewed over 200 women directly impacted by numerous wars and conflicts. It also took me on a personal journey as I accrued more information about my family’s World War Two history.
The pivotal point for commencing the project came while I was working on assignment for the Los Angeles Times in Pakistan in 1988, on a story that addressed the plight of Afghan war widows at the end of the 10-year war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan – there were 100,000 of them.
After that, I chose my subjects based on my interests in particular places and stories that were out of the news, such as Northern Ireland and Cambodia, or held significant on-going meaning, such as Hiroshima, Japan, where I met Setsuko Iwamoto, who survived the A-Bomb when she a child.
Other destinations included Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2009, I chose to go there on two separate trips, as I felt that I needed that time to unravel the visual story about the Srebrenica massacre, while addressing how rape was used as a tool of war.
War is personal
We mainly learn about war and conflict through historical facts or current events, in terms of statistics – 37 million civilian and military deaths in World War One; 1-2 million civilian and military deaths in the Vietnam/American War; 1.4 million Cambodians killed in the Khmer Rouge Genocide; 6 million Jews killed in The Holocaust. I strove to show that war and conflict are personal, that they impact human beings one by one, that they are about one woman, one man and one child at a time.
The people who died were loved, had lives, and futures that were erased. Those who survive are irrevocably changed by their tragic experiences, while the ongoing consequences of displacement, the physical wounds and psychological traumas – the unseen wounds – are passed down through generations. As a visual storyteller, and a re-teller of stories that I deliberately sought out to hear, I felt they were critical to document as testaments to historical events. I also wanted to give a voice and show the face of every woman who I met during this photographic odyssey.
When I started the project, the view towards depicting wars was very much the same as it had been for centuries, showing what was happening on the ground in real time, primarily illustrated from the vantage point of the battlefields. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, and through the 20th century, the photographic perspective on war was still mainly focused on immediate events.
After the fighting stops, women are often bereft of men and resources, yet they are the ones who slowly pick up the pieces and rebuild, while trying to maintain some semblance of normal life. The women’s side of the story may be less striking visually, but it is not of lesser importance. It is also about life and death, but marked by time and stillness and the uncertainty that persistently disquiets the aftermath.
This was the story that I wanted to tell – the long view. There is now broader awareness of the aftereffects, evidenced by a global humanitarian effort to rebuild communities and countries by specifically supporting the women, as it’s been shown that it is beneficial to the long-term stability of a particular culture, country, and geographical region.
Often, there were moments of profound reciprocity where I would glean key insight from a particular woman’s literal experience. In 2005 while I was in Northern Ireland, I met Charlotte Russell, a Protestant, from Londonderry. Her husband, who was a Special Forces policeman, was shot in the head by an IRA sniper and died while she was pregnant with their second child. She said to me,
“I imagine that you are finding that women who survived war are the same everywhere”.
I absorbed what she said and thereafter regarded the project through the window of her wisdom.
Sometimes the stories were almost unbearable to hear, not just because of the wrenching details, but also because of their proximity to my experiences.
Coming of age in the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Vietnam War was the ever-present backdrop. It inspired the peace movement while fomenting devastating social unrest, and was in the forefront of the nightly news with daily tallies of dead and wounded servicemen. Shadowing all of this was the real fear that the young men in my school class would be drafted and called to go to war.
I knew that I had to go to Vietnam for the project, and went there in 2012. One of the women I met, Pham Thi Thuan, had survived the My Lai massacre, an attack on unarmed civilians in a small hamlet by US troops in 1968. She told me that she always remembers the massacre, but said,
“It’s a long time ago. Now the US and Vietnam have a good relationship, so I don’t want to be angry anymore. I’ve tried to come over it”.
I was deeply moved by her willingness to make amends with the past, but as an American, I couldn’t shake the sense of guilt and gripping sorrow that pervaded my thoughts the whole time I was there. Photographing the widows and mothers of US Marines killed in 2005 during the Iraq War, including Sarah Duvall who hugged a portrait of her son Aaron Reed as if he was still alive, also tore at my heart.
Making peace with the past
In sharing my family’s war story as a means of opening a line of trust with many of my subjects, I came to own my personal Holocaust history. I spoke often about my paternal grandmother who was killed in a massacre in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia in 1942, along with her husband, mother and brother. As I spoke her name, Lenke, she became real for me.
I also recognised the sincere need in the women I met, who experienced the traumas and the losses inflicted by war and conflict, to share their stories. Along the way, I came to understand that these women were now part of my story, and I in turn, became part of theirs. This communion of strangers helped me to set my own heart into a more peaceful place.
Often there would be unexpected laughter in these exchanges. While I was in Jordan in 2018 photographing Syrian, Iraqi and Sudanese refugees, I met Mouna Alnuaime, who was from Damascus. She was hoping to stay in Jordan since the entire part of the city where she came from, including her home, were destroyed. As we were parting, she said to me,
“If I didn’t laugh, I would be dead. We should overcome our challenges, problems, sadness and grief through patience and strength”.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the other women featured in Marissa’s project:
Marissa Roth is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. She was part of the Los Angeles Times staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for Best Spot News, for its coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. She is the author of ‘Infinite Light: A Photographic Mediation on Tibet’, with a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama; ‘The Crossing’, a poetic photographic study of the Atlantic Ocean; and ‘Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines’. She is also a curator, lecturer, and teacher, and a Fellow at The Royal Geographical Society in London. Find out details of Marissa’s One Person Crying: Women and War Project and overall work.
Marissa was inspired to write this article for History Hit to mark International Women’s Day 2021, to highlight how throughout history women have been directly impacted by numerous wars and conflicts.