News / Africa

Photographer Emma O'Brien Focuses on the Triumph of Human Spirit

A woman with a tumor, who O’Brien met and photographed in the DRC (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)
A woman with a tumor, who O’Brien met and photographed in the DRC (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)
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Darren Taylor
—  
This is Part Five of a five-part series on
visual artists in South Africa
Continue to Parts:     1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

The photographer knew the scene she’d just witnessed would instantly shatter misconceptions about homeless people. Emma O’Brian was at a soup kitchen in a churchyard in central Johannesburg, when she saw a man in a long queue for food. He was lying on the ground reading Charles Dickens’s famous novel, Great Expectations.
 
O’Brien said the image spoke volumes about the street people she often comes into contact with in the South African metropolis.
 
“Mainstream society says people live on the street because they’re useless and stupid and illiterate. But this is usually not the case,” she maintained.
 
O’Brien wanted to take the photo of the destitute man devouring the book by the famous British writer. It was, after all, potentially an award-wining picture. But her camera remained in her bag and she left the church.
 
“I’ll always regret not having taken that photo,” she told VOA, a somewhat rueful grin creasing her face. “But a church official didn’t think it was a good idea for me to photograph these people and I had to respect him.”

  • Emma O’Brien takes photographs in some of the poorest and most violent places on earth … Yet many of her subjects are smiling. (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)
  • The woman with the tumor, who O’Brien met and photographed in the DRC (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)
  • Emma O’ Brien, photographer (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)
  • The woman with the surgical mask, hiding her terrible injuries (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)
  • O’Brien says it’s her job to explore other people’s realties (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)
  • She enjoys taking photographs in the inner city of Johannesburg (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)
  • One of O’Brien’s favorite photographs, of a man with his loving dogs in Hopefield township near Johannesburg (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)
  • O’Brien’s photographs reflect the triumph of the human spirit, despite great adversity (Photo: E. O’Brien Photography)

 
O’Brien is far removed from the general image of photographers as ruthless and selfish, often ignoring peoples’ feelings in their efforts to capture a perfect shot.
 
Mutilated lips
 
A few months ago she met a woman at a hospital in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]. “Her lips had been amputated with a machete. Her husband and three of her children had been killed in front of her; one can assume she’d also been raped,” said O’Brien.
 
A surgical mask protected, and hid, the woman’s mutilated mouth. O’Brien said her “natural inclination” was to ask for the mask to be removed so that she could take a picture that would highlight the kinds of horrific injuries suffered by victims of the strife in the DRC.
 
But medical workers weren’t comfortable with this, and their reactions prompted the photographer to reconsider how she was dealing with the injured woman.”
 
“I thought, ‘Actually, I don’t think I’m too happy about it’ because I think then she would end up being a bit of a spectacle and actually we’re not looking at exhibits in a zoo here. These are people who have feelings and who have been through huge trauma,” said O’Brien.
 
She photographed the woman with her mask on, declaring, “I think that image is more hard-hitting because people ask, ‘I wonder what her face looks like under the mask?’ And they imagine the horror of her injuries….”
 
O’Brien continued, “I wanted to give her dignity back to her, in a small way. Her dignity had been taken from her by whatever militia did this too her. As a photographer, and as a woman, I felt I had a duty to protect her dignity and to take a photo that tells a story in the kindest possible way for her.”
 
She often donates some of her profits to organizations helping the vulnerable people she photographs. “In taking their picture I’m taking something from them. So for me it’s about giving back,” she said.
 
“I meet these people and I know their names and I have conversations with them. I form a bond with them. Even if it is just a fleeting relationship, it’s still a relationship. It’s wrong of me to have done that and then not use it for a kind of greater good…. It would be wrong of me to go out taking pictures of homeless people and then selling them to big corporates and making a load of money and being like, ‘Yeah, cheers [to the homeless people].’ It just doesn’t sit with me.”
 
O’Brien’s photo project of women in the DRC is called Faces of Courage. Should she find a sponsor she’ll publish it as a book to raise funds for organizations helping the survivors of the country’s conflict.
 
Rape terror in DRC
 
O’Brien described her work in the DRC as the “most emotionally grueling” experience of her career. She commented, “The DRC is hardcore, a very tense, scary and crazy place to be, guns and weapons everywhere. Anything can happen at any time…. We saw one guy…He had like a backpack on his front with four rocket launchers just shoved in it. You think: ‘Well, I hope he doesn’t trip and fall....’”
 
She placed herself at the center of this chaos after seeing a TV report some years ago about the rape of women in the DRC.
 
“Some of these women were on crutches because they’re raped so badly that they can’t walk properly anymore and I can just remember thinking at the time, ‘I’m going to go there at some point.’”
 
O’Brien made it her mission to speak with, and to photograph, rape survivors in the DRC. “A lot of them, when they get raped, their husbands reject them, their families reject them so actually they’ve not only had this horrendous trauma – everybody’s [also] just kind of left them and it’s awful.”
 
She said she’ll never forget some of the people she photographed – including a woman with a “huge, inoperable tumor” on her jaw, carrying her toddler son. They’d fled their village when rebels attacked it.
 
“We said to her, ‘Is this your only child?’ And she said, ‘No. I had six children but I lost five of them [when the rebels raided my village].’ She lost them; they’re gone; don’t know where they are,” O’Brien recalled. “As a mother that’s incomprehensible to me. I don’t know how these women survive, but many of them do. It’s astounding.”
 
Smiling as war rages
 
A striking aspect of O’Brien’s work in dangerous, impoverished places such as the DRC and inner city Johannesburg, where human suffering is the norm, is that many of the people she photographs are smiling – and even having fun.
 
In one of her images from the DRC, two boys, filled with joy and energy, fly kites in a sordid refugee camp.
 
“I take photos in this way to show that – yes, these people have experienced and are experiencing terrible, terrible things and they are suffering. But through this all, they survive; they are still living – because their will to live is so strong and because they are still capable of happiness and joy,” said O’Brien.
 
Her photographs offer proof that those who sought to extinguish her subjects’ humanity have failed – photos like the one she took of a woman, holding her baby twins, in another of the DRC’s sprawling camps for displaced people.
 
“Soldiers gang-raped this woman and she got pregnant with the twins. Despite this, she clearly loved them with all her heart. She told me, ‘I love them more than life itself,’” said O’Brien. This woman, too, smiled into the photographer’s lens.
 
O’Brien emphasized, “People don’t want to know about what’s happening in places like the DRC because it’s so painful, so horrible. I consider my job to be to put a spotlight on what’s happening there so that people don’t ignore it.”
 
But the spotlight she uses to force people to acknowledge the atrocities in central Africa is a very different one. It doesn’t shine on tragedy, terror and tears, as many documentary photographs do. Instead, it concentrates its beam on images alive with hope, in places populated by people generally considered to be hopeless.
 
“I think if my photographs were sensational and focused on injuries and suffering, then people would look away from them,” said O’Brien. “But when they see a picture of a woman who looks happy and they read about what’s happened to her, they say, ‘Wow! All of this happened to that woman and she’s smiling?’ And they end up looking at all the photos.”
 
She added that some of the smiles of people in her photographs were entirely at her own expense. O’Brien explained, “In a lot of the Congo pictures that you’ll see we’ve been trying to say to people to smile in Swahili and they’ve fallen about laughing because it just doesn’t work with the British accent!”
 
The hope and fortitude and bravery so evident on the faces of the “downtrodden” people she photographs also inspires those who view O’Brien’s images.
 
She explained, “I’ve heard people say, ‘God, this woman was raped by a group of rebel soldiers and half her face was hacked off and her children were butchered in front of her. But she looks so happy! Maybe my life isn’t so bad after all; maybe I should be thankful for the life I have.’”
 
Pet pictures
 
O’Brien enjoys “following the unusual” as a photographer – like the time when she visited townships around Johannesburg to take pictures of people and their pets.
 
Again, her project was about “powerless” individuals on the fringes of society; again it was about destroying misconceptions and shattering stereotypes, again it was about shining a spotlight on an issue that hadn’t been examined previously – certainly not photographically.
 
“I wanted to debunk the myth that South Africans living in shacks don’t love animals and don’t keep pets. Many of these people love their animals and for some, caring for and loving a pet is the only pleasure they have,” said O’Brien.
 
She’s still irked by comments made by South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, in December last year that keeping a dog as a pet, taking it to the vet and for walks and spending money on it, is “un-African.”
 
O’Brien said, “I could take you to a million places in Africa where you’d see that dogs are not just for white people. While township dogs don’t sleep on the bed and aren’t fed caviar and don’t wear jerseys in winter, people there have real, loving bonds with their pets.”
 
To prove this in the form of photographic portraits, she accompanied CLAW, an organization dedicated to animal welfare in settlements surrounding Johannesburg.
 
“It’s quite amazing to see these people who live in shacks and really have nothing, they’ll all come up to the mobile veterinary clinic and they’ll queue up and they bring their dogs and their dogs are in great shape and these dogs clearly love them! It just kind of breaks the preconception…that because someone lives in a township they’re going to be horrible to their animals,” O’Brien said.
 
Other people’s realities
 
It was in the township of Hopefield, near Johannesburg, that O’Brien snapped a photograph that remains one of her favorites.
 
She said, “The CLAW truck arrived and it was like a homing radar with all these people descending on the mobile clinic with their dogs and buckets full of puppies.”
 
Near this scene she noticed an elderly man walking down a hill with his two dogs.
“The dogs were obviously thrilled to be going out for a walk with him and they were jumping up and I took a few shots as he walked towards me,” said O’Brien. “He walked in front of me and kept walking away and I just got this great shot from the back. As I took the shot he happened to put his arm around one of the dogs and then the other one jumped up in the air. And they’re all looking at each other. It was fantastic; I just thought it summed up how these people really love their dogs.”
 
She’s still excited at the memory of taking the photograph, still in awe of how it happened.
 
“You can’t see any faces in the photo but the emotion captured in their body language says it all. I love this picture and it all unfolded before me without me even realizing what was happening at the time. Luckily for me I pressed the shutter at the right time. I could never have staged such a scene.”
 
The driving force behind O’Brien’s art is “documenting other people’s realities.” That, she said, makes her happy. She added, “It also makes me feel as if I am fulfilling my purpose. On another level I feel as if I am working for a cause that’s bigger than me. I’m doing something I feel is very important: I’m documenting stories of people who actually are in the middle of a village in Africa that nobody would ever know about. They’re of equal importance to you and I. They have equally as much to say….”
 
Emma O’Brien’s photographs give faces, and voices, to people who otherwise would remain invisible, unheard. But above all, where most would see only defeat and despair, O’Brien’s work is an overwhelming demonstration of the triumph of the human spirit.

Listen to profile of South Africa-based photographer Emma O'Brien
Listen to profile of South African artist Emma O'Brieni
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