Papua New Guinea is better known in Brazil by the idyllic scenery and native culture. How have you had contact with another feature of the country, the brutal violence against women?
VS: It is true that Papua New Guinea has amazing nature, culture, more than 800 languages and thousands traditions. But at the same time it is one of the countries in the world with highest levels of violence against women. When I read reports about it I was shocked. And I was surprised to find little photo evidence of that too. Basically photographers go to PNG to cover all those festivals, but almost no one documented the other side of life in PNG, the one that is horrible for the women of the country. So I decided to go there and try to do it myself. That is how “Crying Meri”project was born.
The Meri live in constant terror and keep silent for fear of reprisals. How did you approach them and registered these cruel marks in theis intimacy?
VS: Médecins Sans Frontières state that in PNG level of violence against women is normally experienced only in war zones. So women there live like in everyday’s war. You never know when and where violence can happen. They could be abused in school, market, at home while they are sleeping or in the taxi. It can happen during the day or night. And many of those girls and women can’t ask police for help, as the police usually fails to protect them. Many of victims can’t go to refuges, because in many provinces there are no refuges and in places where they are – places are limited. So when I approached some victims and survivors and asked them if they would like to share their stories though photographs, for many of them it was a chance to be heard. They trusted me and my camera and I tried to show what happens to them with respect and dignity.
International attention and a public outcry by concerned citizens brought a response by the government, which passed the nation’s first law prohibiting domestic violence late last year. It has been possible to observe a change in habits among the population of PNG?
VS: This is too early to tell, as the changes were made in 2013. So far I could see better local media coverage of this issue, so more people are aware of the situation. But PNG women and girls are still being raped, bitten by their men or assaulted on the streets by ‘Raskols’ – the local gangs. I think it will take a long time before some men change the way they behave and start respecting women. But it’s good to know that some changes are already happening now.
The United Nations mounted a photographic exhibit of your work in the capital of PNG, Port Moresby and Amnesty International used your photographs and stories in a public education campaign, many people backed the book project on Kickstarter. Do you believe you have reached your goal with this project?
VS: My goal was to raise awareness about this terrible culture of violence against women and I think that my photographs helped to do so. They appeared not only in exhibitions and magazines around the world or online appeals. There were marches of protest against violence in Papua New Guinea and Australia. Thousands of people participated in street protests, called ‘National Haus Krai’ – the PNG Pidgin term for a wake and mourning for the dead. In many of these protests people were holding images from “Crying Meri”, asking PNG government to protect women. For me it was a proof that photography still helps to change thing. Maybe it does not change the world anymore, but at least helps to improve lives of some people.
As for ‘Crying Meri’ book – it was published last week in Istanbul and I’m bringing it to Papua New Guinea in the end of this year. I hope it will be another tool to promote end of the violence. My hope is that violent PNG men can see the book with all those images of their abused mothers, wives, daughters in one place and just say “stop, what are we doing?”.
Giving visibility to the Crying Meri project, is giving voice to these women. In what other ways do you believe we can contribute to gender violence be reduced?
VS: There are many ways. Photography plays just a visual part in it. But ending gender based violence can be achieved through many different ways: better educations to men and boys, training police to deal with such cases, public campaigns and many other things. But this is not a photographer’s business anymore. I just wanted to show people – that’s what you do in your country. Now it’s up to them if they want to change the way they treat women, or still live with violence. But I hope for better.
By Lila Varo and Ariane Corniani