In his desire to show through photography that “Violence against women is not only the most widespread example of a human rights violation, but probably the least evident,” (more here) three times World Press Photo winner Walter Astrada has already documented femicide in Guatemala and sexual violence in Eastern Congo. His latest project is ‘Undesired’, a multimedia documentary funded by the Alexia Foundation and produced by MediaStorm. Watch the full video, as well as his commentary, by clicking the image below:
Along with an incredible series of photos, the film explores the economic pressure for women to give birth to boys in India, and the subsequent abortion, neglect and murder of girls and women. It is a piece about people who are undesired and denied social worth and freedom from conception, and the inspiring women who refuse to comply.
After watching the film transfixed and wondering what had happened to the feminist I used to be, I contacted Walter. He kindly found time to chat to me, put up with my increasingly embarrassing Spanish and answer a few questions.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a photographer?
When I was thirteen I saw a photojournalism exhibition in Argentina and decided that’s what I want to do when I grow up. After I finished secondary school I started studying photography, and about two and a half years later started work for an Argentinian daily newspaper.
Did you always want to focus on human rights?
When I worked for the newspaper, my photos were of wide-ranging, general subjects. But I wanted to do more photo stories, so after about three years at the paper I quit, went travelling and started working for an agency, which meant I could photograph more of what I was interested in. I was lucky to start working for AP, but I also wanted to do projects that were more personal, so I quit again and I started working as free lancer and doing assignments for AFP, first in Haiti and later in Eastern Africa. I actually still work as a freelancer, represented by Reportage by Getty Images.
What made an Argentine male photographer decide to document violence against women in India?
To answer that, I’ll ask you a question first: If my project had been on Child Labour, would you have asked me the same question? People often ask me that, and my answer is always ‘Why not?’ I see no contradiction in being a man and wanting to document such an important subject.
The thing is, violence against women is not just against women, it has repercussions in children, in the family, in the health of women, and therefore in society as a whole. It’s not limited to one particular country, it happens everywhere. If governments took violence against women much more seriously it would help solve so many social issues. For example, there’d be far less children living in the streets – so many children run away because of violence at home.
Did your experience in India differ in any way from what you’d expected?
I didn’t think I’d be there as long as I was. I planned to finish the project in two months, but some of my initial contacts failed and I eventually did it in four. It was difficult to find people who would talk openly about the issue. Obviously, people like doctors, authorities or organisations do discuss it. But finding someone who has suffered violence is so complicated…it’s not like people walk around the streets openly discussing it.
What do you hope people will take away from the documentary?
Instead of thinking along the lines of ‘once again he’s showing us violence’ I hope people start thinking: ‘What can I actually do to help to change this?’
Can you pick out one of the most difficult or shocking things you’ve had to photograph in your career so far?
All the work to do with violence against women has been shocking, but in the case of India it was even more so, because a lot of violence wasn’t only physical, but psychological. Sometimes, the worst thing was that many women didn’t even realise they were in a cycle of violence. That’s one of the hardest things, when people come to see the violence they’re suffering as standard and expected.
And is there any stand-out time when you’ve seen that your photography has made a difference?
One example is when last year I won a prize, the Photographers Giving Back award. I won the prize for the series of photos I did about sexual violence in the Congo. After talking with Jonas Lemberg who awarded me the prize we decided to give the prize money (5000 USD) to a group of women in the Congo who work towards the rehabilitation of rape survivors.
Finally, are there any projects you’re working on?
Yes…but I’m still working on the fundraising and contacts…
United Nations Development Programme: Power, Voice and Rights (pdf)
Action Aid & International Development Research Centre: Disappearing Daughters
New York Times: Missing: 50 Million Indian Girls
The Guardian: Women fight for life