Capturing the aftermath of war: Helping child soldiers tell their own stories

Photojournalist Marc Ellison spent last summer working with female, former child soldiers in war-ravaged northern Uganda. Conscious of resentful attitudes to journalists, Ellison adopted a unique, 'anthropographic' approach in his examination of the issues these former combatants continue to face in their post-conflict lives: He helped them tell their own stories.

Photojournalist Marc Ellison spent last summer working with female, former child soldiers in war-ravaged northern Uganda. Conscious of resentful attitudes to journalists, Ellison adopted a unique, 'anthropographic' approach in his examination of the issues these former combatants continue to face in their post-conflict lives: He helped them tell their own stories.

The camerawork is unsteady, but the footage is haunting.

The young woman, her face and braids illuminated by the half-light of the adobe hut, stares directly at the camera as she answers questions about her abduction at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

There is no fear or anxiety as the former child soldier answers the interviewer’s questions. She recounts how she was beaten viciously about the head and left for dead after she dropped the load she was carrying.

After the interview, the woman sits outside staring blankly into space.

The interviewer asks to see the woman’s wounds. She complies, revealing a scarred, red-raw landscape of scalp near her neckline.

“I’m sure God will help us,” you hear Jennifer, the interviewer, tell her. “There is no situation that is permanent.”

Jennifer too is dwog paco. She too is a former child soldier.


In the summer of 2011 I conducted IDRC-funded research into how successfully reintegration efforts had helped 40 formerly abducted women in northern Uganda settle into their post-conflict lives.

Women like Janet, Christine, Mary, Jennifer, and Alice.

Their lives will never be quite the same after their time in the bush with the LRA.

“Why should I talk to you?”

This question was one that I was asked many times by the women I interviewed. It was one I'd been dreading. Researcher fatigue was an issue that had cropped up in the preparatory reading I'd done before leaving for northern Uganda . And to be honest, it was a question that needed justification.

Child soldiers were used extensively by the LRA. Over 30,000 children, as young as eight and nine, were taken at night from their families into the bush. They were forced to become wives, soldiers, cooks and porters. Women were expected to go into battle with their babies on their backs.

But even years after returning, these former abductees, particularly women, face stigmatization from their communities and even their own families.

Unlike their male counterparts, these women have returned with children. Single parents, they continue to struggle to support themselves and their families.

Many never received a formal education due to their abduction and have to resort to manual labour to be able to send their children to school.

So many journalists, academics, and researchers have preceded me in a country ravaged by over 20 years of conflict. Each, with a few exceptions, has plumbed these former abductees for juicy, sensational headline-grabbing stories, never to be seen again by the participants.

One told me they'd promised to build water boreholes in her community, or to give her money for her testimony. She never saw these people again.

Despite the fact that my research was focused primarily on what had happened to her since she’d left the bush, why should they talk to me?

I therefore decided to adopt an irregular journalistic approach in my research. I wanted to use old media in a new way and—unlike  many researchers—to actively include my participants.

It's called anthropographia — a term coined by anthropologist and photographer Matthieu Rytz. His aim was to combine these two disciplines in order to write human stories with photography as the medium.

Photographers are encouraged to challenge prejudices and better our understanding of cultures and societies different from our own. These photographic essays have ranged from following ladyboys in Thailand’s sex industry, to migrants attempting to travel from West Africa to Europe. It's a visual advocacy of sorts.

But I wanted to take the notion of anthropographia one step further. I wanted to take the camera from my own hands, and put it into those of the women. 

I wanted them to actively participate; to see the world through their eyes; to help me represent their own stories. This would allow me to battle their researcher fatigue, to tell their story accurately, to gain a fly-on-the-wall view of their daily lives, to teach them a new skill.

Five women were given camera training and instruction in composition and lighting. They were then asked to photograph their daily activities, or whatever they felt was important to them.

Each following week I would sit down with each woman and critique her photography, and ask her why she took each photo.

Budget-wise it was a bit of a gamble. But the results were surprising. Not only was the standard of photography high, but more surprisingly it brought up a number of issues not covered in our regular interviews.

Christine's photos of cows for example revealed how a neighbour allows his cattle to graze on her land every day destroying her crops. Being a woman in a patriarchal society and a formal rebel, he ignores her protests.

The local councilor has failed to intervene, and Christine cannot afford to take the matter to court. She says her neighbours are also trying to take over her land. As a woman, a single mother, and a former child soldier, she’s fighting a losing battle.

Another of the women’s photos shows the father of one of her children. He has since left her alone with the child, using the woman’s past as a rebel as a poor get-out clause. He has also refused to get an HIV test with her.

Another photo, showing former abductee Janet lying in bed, unearths the fact that she had to spend half a month’s wages on malaria medication.

But the majority of the images taken simply depicted the daily lives of these women—their family, their children, their friends. Their daily chores that involve digging, tailoring, borehole trips, cooking, cleaning and laundry.

For the final week of my research the five women were asked to switch roles and become interviewer. They all have friends who are formerly abducted women. I asked them to conduct short video interviews with them.

This not only gave me a deeper insight into these women’s post-conflict lives, but illustrated the informal support networks these formerly abducted women have established for themselves.

We see in Jennifer’s video mentioned at the outset of this article, how much the woman trusts Jennifer, and how Jennifer comforts her. I also hope that this anthropographic approach not only offered the interviewees a form of counseling, but that it allowed these five women to distance themselves from their own experiences. Namely that advice or comfort they objectively offered to their own participants could, in turn, be used in relation to their lives.

There were admittedly challenges to this unique approach. Mary was mugged, her camera stolen. Christine was outcast by the NGO assisting her for not handing over the camera to them. I am thankful to report that Mary was unharmed in the attack, and Christine has since been accepted back into her group, the previous manager fired.

But this project has illustrated that the old medium of photography, in the hands of our participants, can be used to tell stories in new and exciting ways. The project was first met with skepticism from the women who admitted they'd likely sell the cameras after the project ended. But now they confess they'll likely keep them to rent out, or they'll take and sell pictures of their families and friends.

The war-affected communities of northern Uganda have become sick and tired of reliving their worst memories for researchers and journalists. No longer should they be treated merely as specimens of war, to be poked and prodded.

I think that anthropographia is certainly one solution to that problem. It’s just one more tool that perhaps journalists can utilize in transitional societies to not only gain the trust of war-weary participants, but also to elicit a more authentic, more fulsome post-conflict narrative.


Marc Ellison is a freelance reporter, and data journalist for The Vancouver Sun. In recent years he suffered a pre-midlife crisis, and has since turned his back on a decade-long IT career to pursue his passion for reporting. The training Marc received as part of Carleton University's Masters of Journalism program has since helped him establish a freelance career in Canada, South Sudan and Uganda. He will be publishing his multimedia website, Dwog Paco, on the reintegration of female former child soldiers in the first week of April 2012.