“Every two seconds a girl is married,” says photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who’s going on her 14th year of documenting the issue of child marriage. (See her photos of child brides in the 2011 National Geographic magazine story “Too Young To Wed.”) The issue has gained traction in the global conversation, but Sinclair knows that the girls affected need help now. “We have to make sure we’re reaching them on the ground,” she says. “It’s really important to walk the talk.”
In an effort to do that, Sinclair started a nonprofit, Too Young to Wed, in 2012. Just a few weeks ago it partnered with Fuji Film and the Samburu Girls Foundation (SGF)—an organization that rescues vulnerable girls from harmful practices in rural Kenya—to put on a photography workshop for ten girls between the ages of 11 and 14.
At the beginning of the workshop, as Sinclair was showing the students her photography, she asked about their familiarity with child marriage. A girl named Angela raised her hand. She had run away when she heard she was going to be married off. Sinclair then asked if any of them had heard of a situation like Angela’s. The other nine girls raised their hands—they had all escaped marriage.
“Girl empowerment is one of the strongest prevention techniques to end child marriage,” says Sinclair. By teaching basic photography skills, the workshop affirmed the value of their voices and their stories—stories that many of the girls had never told. That soon changed.
Their first assignment was to make a portrait of a partner. As Sinclair explains, “We paired them off into twos. To make a great portrait you have to know who you’re photographing; you have to share your story with your partner. Some girls had never shared their stories before. That was very powerful. We were a little taken aback when they had such an emotional reaction, but some of the girls who had shared their stories before said, ‘No, no. They need to do this.'”
A small, but dedicated operation, SGF has rescued almost 235 girls from traumatic situations. Its teams try their best to provide education for the girls, but they don’t have the resources to offer counseling. In its place, the photo workshop became a form of therapy, beginning the process of healing.
The vulnerability the girls exchanged is visible in the portraits they made. “It was really unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” says Sinclair. “The portraits that came out were quite powerful for girls who had only picked up the camera the day before. I think they found photography [to be] a way to communicate what they’d been through.”
The finale of the workshop was an exhibition of the photos, when each girl who wanted to had an opportunity to present her work and share her story. To prepare them, the teachers coached the girls to amplify not only their visual voices but also their speaking voices. Sinclair describes first meeting the girls, when many of them spoke in a whisper. “We were worried that their voices would be so soft the audience wouldn’t hear them,” she says. “The more confident they got, the louder they spoke.”
The afternoon of the exhibition, about 70 people came—chiefs of the girls’ villages, some of their parents. “Each girl presented the photo they did of the other girl,” says Sinclair. “I left it up to them what they wanted to say about the photographs they did of their friends. Most of them shared their stories. All of them talked about what they wanted to be when they were older. And all of them talked about how they wanted to help the community and prevent girls from going through what they had gone through.”
“They got up there and screamed into the microphone so much that it was cracking: ‘My name is Jane. I am 12 years old. I have been circumcised, and my parents tried to marry me off.’ The audience was crying, the girls were crying. We were all crying. It’s almost like they were taking their power back and expressing all these things that they wanted to say for the first time to the public, to their community.”