As The Face of Defiance goes on show in Dakar, Senegal, co-creator Leyla Hussein shares her experiences of working alongside fellow campaigners in Africa.
Since first exhibiting The Face of Defiance in the US and Ireland last year, it was obvious that going to Africa for our next collection of images was key. For me, it was extremely personal - I'm a survivor of this practice and a daughter of Africa. With the encouragement of my dear friend, the late Efua Dorkenoo, I created The Face of Defiance as an opportunity to tell the stories of my fellow FGM campaigners and survivors from around the world – so now it was time to go to where FGM is widely-accepted.
In July 2017, myself and Jason Ashwood, talented photographer and The Face of Defiance co-creator, flew out to beautiful Senegal - my second visit in ten years. Soukeyna Diallo, The Girl Generation’s Programme Officer in Senegal, was our trusted advisor and guide. She emphasised that we needed to go to the regions where FGM is still extensively practiced. Agreeing, but not quite knowing what I was getting into, off we went to Tambacounda, Makakoulibantang, Kolda and then back to the capital city Dakar, meeting and photographing members of The Girl Generation. Travelling and working in 40 degree heat to develop flawless, calm portraits was an incredible accomplishment. It was a long journey - in mileage, and in learning. We successfully took 15 beautiful images, and spent time talking with each participant to understand and record their story.
It was a long journey – in mileage, and in learning. We successfully took 15 beautiful images, and spent time talking with each participant to understand and record their story.
For me, that’s what’s so powerful about The Face of Defiance – the portraits alone are dignified, hope-filled and emotive, and the stories bring to light the commitment of these inspiring individuals who have gone through so much to pursue their dream of ending FGM.
Including men in the collection for the first time
In the original collection, we had photographed women – survivors and activists. This time, we added men – fathers who stopped their daughters from being cut and activists who work against the grain in their communities to ensure women and girls are protected from FGM and other forms of harm.
What was interesting about these men was their understanding of male privilege. Most of them were very clear that facing struggle was not an issue. “I'm a man; I'm respected by all. I use this privilege to do something good, and I wish more men would do the same."
"Our girls’ clubs help girls understand the consequences of FGM and the importance of taking their own destiny into their hands.” - Babacar Sy
A big decision – should we include ex-cutters?
One of the biggest decisions we made for this collection was to photograph ex-cutters. Being honest - I was very torn on this. But many leading activists and survivors I met on my travels across Africa kept telling me it was important to tell the full story. I was encouraged to photograph cutters who have now abandoned the practice as they are great advocates for ending FGM and are now campaigners and changemakers themselves. Our hope is that by telling their story we can inspire others to do the same.
Our hope is that by telling their story we can inspire others to do the same.
This was not an easy process for me. I felt very angry and frustrated but once I sat with these women and heard their stories I suddenly became protective of them. One particular ex-cutter told me that she has nightmares of the pain she caused for many children. I was faced with an inner struggle: “Do I just ignore them? Or do I use this platform to tell their stories so they can hopefully help other cutters to do the same and abandon this practice?”
Our fundamental aim is to end this practice for good
One key lesson I also learned in Senegal was how people have no patience for those who waste their time arguing about terminologies, i.e. “FGM” versus “FGC”. "Leyla, we don't have time when one girl is being cut every eleven seconds. Our fundamental aim is to end this horrible practice for good in any way that we can,” they told me. “We need support and better resources. We don’t need to be told how to do this. We know our communities better than anyone.”
“We need support and better resources. We don’t need to be told how to do this. We know our communities better than anyone.”
Senegal will always be a place that challenges a lot of my beliefs and values, and as difficult as it may be, I always feel the love and kindness here. I also have such gratitude and great honour to be working with fellow Africans, who trust Jason Ashwood, myself and The Girl Generation to share their amazing stories of difficulties and triumphs. This is an absolute honour.
Senegal, I can't wait to see you soon and I am looking forward to working with many other African countries to develop The Face of Defiance further.
The Face of Defiance exposition will take place in Dakar on Tuesday 5th and Wednesday 6th December 2017 at la Maison de la Presse (Medina rue 5 X Corniche). http://www.maisondelapresse.gouv.sn/