2006 — student winner
Melanie Blanding is an independent documentary and humanitarian photographer. She has lived and worked throughout the United States, Africa and Europe. Combining her background in photojournalism and visual anthropology, her cultural documentary work has been recognized by the NPPA’s International Best of Photography competition, the Hearst Foundation, the Alexia Foundation, Virginia and Kentucky’s Press Photographer’s Associations and the College Photographer of the Year competition.
In 2011, Melanie was awarded a fellowship from Focus for Humanity to continue pursuing culturally relevant and storytelling photography with international charities. She began her commitment with the fellowship in Uganda in May 2011 and has remained there since.
Melanie graduated with a BA in Photojournalism from Western Kentucky University in 2006 and an MA in Visual Anthropology from the University of Manchester in 2009.
How has the Alexia grant influenced your career?
It completely altered the direction I went as a photojournalist, from focusing on daily news and trying to find employment with newspapers to focusing more in depth on social justice issues and specifically issues affecting women in conflict or post-conflict conditions. It’s been increasingly difficult for anyone to secure or keep a full-time position with newspapers in the States and it was a spring board for serious work overseas that really allowed me to develop personally and professionally to tell critically important global news and learn the skills necessary to work effectively in a post-conflict environment.
How did your project lead to greater exposure or solutions for your issue of focus?
At first I sought organizations and publications through which to distribute the work, but in 2006 and 2007, I couldn’t find publications that were willing to publish the work and organizations didn’t want to come near the subject, saying things like featuring the impact of rape would scare donors away or that it was an inappropriate topic for polite conversation and not to bring up the subject again.
My brother, Scott, started an organization called Women in War Zones to raise awareness through story telling and to channel resources back to Panzi Hospital, where much of the work was documented. Scott and Brad LaBriola made a film focusing on victims of sexual violence as well and we used the organization as a platform to feature the photography and organize film screenings to raise awareness and funding. I volunteered for WIWZ for four years and now I’m an advisor. It eventually led to the creation of the Wamu Center for literacy and education in Panzi, in memory of one of the young women whose life we documented most extensively.
The website is www.womeninwarzones.org
Tell us about a moment from the project that you will never forget.
I was visiting Kaziba in South Kivu and a group of survivors had gathered to tell me their stories. One woman stood up in a crowded room of more than 100 people, and started taking her clothes off as she was speaking. She was telling me about the scars left after being brutally attacked by a rebel group. I asked how many women had been physically scarred from the attacks and every one of them raised their hand. The building where we were meeting was still under construction so I invited any woman who wanted to show me how they had been attacked into a private, empty room and let them strike the pose they wanted to communicate their story. I had time to photograph and interview about 15 women before it got too late to stay out in the village, when the risk of a rebel attack on the road was still too common.
Have you, or do you plan on expanding your project? How so?
The expansion was the creation of Women in War Zones and the Wamu Center (see above).
Thousands of women are raped in war zones every year. I plan to document the lives of victims in Bukavu, Congo.
Political conflict carried over from Kigali, Rwanda into the Bukavu region led to thousands of troops stationed there since 1998: United Nations, Rwandan and Congolese. Military governments fight over gold, diamonds and other natural resources.
Violence against women skyrocketed with the influx of troops. Dr. Denis Mukwege directs the Red Cross supported Panzi Rape Clinic just outside Bukavu. He estimated in August 2005 that he would treat 4,000 rape victims from the immediate area by the end of the year — up from 3,600 the year before.
I spent one week at a rape seminar in Bukavu this past August. I interviewed women and established a relationship at the rape clinic. The Congolese women deserve to have their story told. If I secure grant money, I plan to return to Bukavu for summer 2006 to continue documenting these women.
"There are 250 beds [at the clinic]," Mukwege said. "They are always full. Women wait four weeks to see a doctor."
Women are most often raped in "the bush" while performing daily chores such as farming or collecting wood and water.
"I was taken in the bush," Alphonsine told other women at the rape seminar. "Now I have AIDS." Virtually every victim suffers from incontinence and must receive surgery to repair obliterated genitals to control bowel movements again.
Women are sometimes raped in front of their family or dragged to a central location in the community to be raped in front of their friends and neighbors. Sometimes soldiers force boys to rape their mother, grandmother, or sister.
Alphonsine’s husband kicked her out of their home and abandoned her and their children after she was raped in front of him.
"It is shameful. I have been ruined and he does not want me. My children are ruined. I have no way to earn money and no food to feed them. I have no place to live." It was a Rwandan soldier that raped Alphonsine, but Congolese and UN soldiers are raping too.
It doesn’t matter how old a girl is, the soldiers will rape her. A woman stood with Julie, her 3-year-old granddaughter. She said Julie was gang raped; a soldier put his gun in her vagina and fired it. Attractive young women are kidnapped and kept as sex slaves for months at a time. Most die from repeated gang rape and other physical violations.
If they become pregnant, the lucky ones are let go. Multiple reports tell of women whose babies were cut from their uterus and left to die.
"Many men came for me. Sometimes 5, 10, 20 in one day," a 16-year-old shared. "Then, they took the knife of their gun and put it in my vagina. In one excruciating circumstance a woman tells that after being gang raped by Rwandan soldiers, they forced her to butcher and cook her child.
There is no excuse for women to be destroyed like this, physically, emotionally and mentally. I may not be able to do anything to stop the Rwandan or Congolese soldiers, but the United Nations must be held accountable for the actions of its soldiers. I can communicate visually what is happening to women in war zones.
For 16 days in 2005, from Nov. 25 through Dec. 10, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sponsored a conference in Geneva that specifically addressed "the connections between women's human rights, violence against women and women's health, and the detrimental consequences violence against women has on the well-being of the world as a whole."
Through contacts previously established, I have secured a volunteer translator, as well as room and board at no cost for three months in the region. A local pastor (name withheld for security) oversees a church made up mostly of raped, ostracized women and their children. Their congregation has invited me to document these women"s lives as they try to survive after the rape — many have no housing or food. Some prostitute themselves for a few dollars, a bed or a handful of food. Sometimes an individual will take pity on a woman and just let her sleep, without sharing her bed. I have permission to document the surgery and recovery process of women at the Panzi rape clinic. For the cost of a plane ticket, I will be able to document and share the lives of rape victims in east Congo.