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Seeing What the Children Suffer: Uganda in Words and Pictures

May 1, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg
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Stephen Shames (above) shared the history behind his images of Uganda.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the images of Ugandan children taken by noted documentary photographer Stephen Shames, now on display in a new local exhibit, don't need much text to accompany them.

Instead, his 30 large-format photos should suffice for viewers to vividly imagine what it must have been like to grow up and live through such tragic circumstances as civil war and the AIDS epidemic, which have both stricken Uganda. Being orphaned there because of these factors is acknowledged by all involved as often "the norm."

Take, for example, the picture of a young girl carrying two yellow canisters to gather water from a well. She stares into the camera with an empty gaze. Shames explained that children are ever mindful that they could be raped or forced to become child soldiers in the Lord's Resistance Army, a guerrilla group that's been fighting the Ugandan government and creating turmoil in the East African country over the past two decades. The LRA abducts children 9 or 10 years old, said Shames, because in their fragile state as orphans, "they are easier to control."

The girl in the photo had once been abducted.

It took Shames eight years and several visits to the country to highlight the daily experiences of children -- youths who are, as the appropriately named exhibition conveys, "Small Survivors: Vulnerable Children of Uganda." The photos are now on display in the Open Lens and Borowsky Galleries at the Gershman Y, at the corner of Broad and Pine streets in Philadelphia, through Aug. 15.

At an opening reception on April 6, Shames, who resides in Brooklyn, gave a tour through the galleries containing his emotionally haunting works and explained the history of the problems Uganda faces, as well as the background stories of the young people depicted in the photos.

While some stories were sad, others were uplifting, as he noted that many of the children are now thriving in the best African schools, thanks, in part, to the Stephen Shames Foundation.

The New York-based organization he established works with the Ugandan nonprofit group Concern for the Future. The two entities raise funds to support these children and provide them with an education and the basic necessities they need to do well in school, such as uniforms, supplies and food.

One of the children helped is Sarah Nantaayi. Shames said that he photographed her and her older siblings at the funeral of their mother. One of the images shows her as a bright-eyed girl with pencil in hand and notebook open, attentive to the lessons being taught by her teacher at a school in Uganda's capital, Kampala.

Twenty colorful drawings -- in mediums such as crayon and marker -- done by the Ugandan children, depicting their memories, are displayed alongside Shames' work.

"His efforts speak to tikkun olam, 'repairing the world,' " explained Miriam Seidel, curator of the Gershman Y galleries. "Stephen Shames has embodied that in his work."

A Return Visit

Later that same day, Shames participated in a panel discussion with scholars Elliot Fratkin, a professor and director of African studies at Smith College, who addressed the history and background of the Ugandan conflict, and Joanne Corbin, associate professor at the Smith College School for Social Work, who spoke of healing the children after the war.

Seidel also noted that on Sunday, May 11, at 7 p.m., Shames will return to the Gershman for a roundtable discussion, followed by a screening of the Academy Award-nominated documentary "War/Dance." Joining him will be two of the Ugandan students in his photos, Ronald Okello, a former child soldier, and Charles Wasswa, an AIDS orphan, who will both visit several schools in the Philadelphia area to speak to their American peers about life back home.

Okello, 16, who lost his right forearm from the elbow down in the fighting, will be fitted for a prosthetic arm by Dr. Albert Esquenazi and undergo related rehabilitation services at MossRehab during his visit, according to Seidel. She also noted the generosity of all of the nurses and doctors involved, who are volunteering their services, as well as the Kolustian Fund and Allied Prosthetics, which is providing the arm for Okello, who apparently is simply thrilled knowing that in less than two weeks, he will have a new limb.

"We hear so much about the suffering in Africa," said Seidel, "it's easy to tune it out." But, she added, Shames' images speak directly of "how children are particularly impacted."

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