Picture of smiling young woman in red dress.

These radiant portraits show women as they want to be seen

At a Ugandan center for women with special needs, a photographer asked her subjects how they wished to be depicted: Capable, equal, and intelligent, they told her.

Ugandans such as Nancy Ayaa, who was born with a cognitive impairment, visit the Gulu Women With Disabilities Union to learn new skills, make friends, and—on occasion—pose as models.

For several years, “fly on the wall” was Esther Ruth Mbabazi’s approach to photography. Be invisible. Don’t influence the scene. Then, in 2019, the 28-year-old Ugandan had an opportunity to do just the opposite.

That’s when Mbabazi learned of the Gulu Women With Disabilities Union, a vocational and social center in a small city in Uganda’s north. Over one year, she made four trips to Gulu and photographed women she met, including a land mine survivor missing a leg, a deaf mother of four, and a blind musician. They posed in custom dresses, created by a Kampala-based designer, against backdrops of art and handiwork they had made. When Mbabazi asked the women how they wanted to be seen, they told her: as capable, equal, intelligent. In other words, accorded the dignity that Ugandans with special needs often are denied.

On her last trip to Gulu, Mbabazi delivered large, framed copies of the portraits to those who posed for them. Mbabazi hopes the photos will be exhibited publicly, to help change how the women are seen, and treated, by others.

The National Geographic Society has funded the work of photographer Esther Ruth Mbabazi since 2019. Learn more about its support of Explorers at natgeo.com/impact.

This story appears in the January 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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