Women’s Experiences of War

Elizabeth Herman, A10, uncovers a hidden legacy in her photographic documentary
View a gallery of photographs from Elizabeth Herman’s documentary project “A Women’s War.”
October 22, 2013

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Soldiers invaded their homes and killed their families while they watched. They were raped, tortured, imprisoned and displaced, and they often fought alongside their male comrades. Yet their stories are not found in history books or on war memorials, and their rights are often ignored by new governments ruling their now peaceful countries.

These are the women who photojournalist and researcher Elizabeth Herman, A10, met and photographed in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Egypt, Bosnia and Northern Ireland. In her photo documentary project A Woman’s War she records not just these women’s faces, but their testimonies, chronicling an aspect of war she fears will otherwise be lost.

“You can’t just write half the population out of the history books,” says Herman, who works as a freelance photographer and researcher for several news outlets while based in New York. “Men can read about their war experiences; their stories are told and memorialized in monuments. These women told me, ‘We are not remembered.’”

A Woman’s War—which has been exhibited in solo shows in Brooklyn, New York and Dhaka, Bangladesh, and in group shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles—has been featured in the New York Times, the Nation and the Guardian, among other outlets. Herman is “striving to trace the scars that exist today to the events that made them,” according to the Times. “She places the viewer face to face with women whose stories are what remain of events that have faded into the past.”

Herman’s journey began in photography courses in high school in Newton, Mass., deepening when she was an undergraduate participating in Exposure, a human rights, documentary and photojournalism program run by Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership (IGL). Students in the program accompany professional photojournalists on intensive one- or two-week workshops around the country and the world. Herman’s took her to [EH1] Siem Reap, Cambodia; Ajmer, a city in Rajasthan in northern India; and Hue, Vietnam.

Later, as a Fulbright Fellow to Bangladesh in 2010, she researched the aftermath of the Liberation War—the conflict in which the former East Pakistan fought for its independence in 1971. In 2011, she went to Egypt on a GlobalPost/Open Hands Initiative reporting fellowship to chronicle women involved in the recent political and social uprising.

By 2012, she was awarded a grant by Tufts International Global Leadership program in honor of Tim Hetherington, a photographer killed in 2011 while covering the war in Misrata, Libya, to speak to women involved in the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. From there she went to Northern Ireland with the Project on Justice in Times of Transition to photograph individuals instrumental in the peace process, and stayed to find women on all sides of the decades-long conflict there.

“Many of these women had not talked to anyone about their experiences for 40 years,” Herman says of all those she spoke with. She would ask one question, and the women would talk for hours. 

In Bosnia, Herman interviewed Dževada Trešnjo, who had served in the Bosnian Army Medical Corps and had lost her hand while trying to protect a young boy wounded by enemy fire.

“When the war started, I hoped all the time that it wasn’t real, that the passions would settle down and everything would go back to normal,” Trešnjo told Herman. “However, as it continued, I felt that it was going to last forever.”

Herman said stories like Trešnjo’s taught her that “these women cannot be labeled either victims or heroes, but a mixture of both. They suffered and survived, and there’s a lesson in that for me in my life, and for all of us.”

Hearing the stories also changed the way Herman viewed her own life. “Before meeting these individuals, I never thought that being a woman was a significant part of my identity,” she says. “But now I see that it is important to ask, What is your role?”

The women told her that being remembered is part of their healing process. Acknowledging their past and moving beyond it is the only treatment—self-prescribed—for their own brand of post-traumatic stress disorder, she says.

“They lived through battling guerrilla fighters; bloody hand-to-hand combat; home-to-home fighting; husbands, children and parents killed or just disappeared. And collectively, thousands of women across all these conflicts were raped,” says Herman, who hopes to continue her work on women and war. “It changes you, hearing their stories, but it also made me more determined to preserve their lives in photographs and words.”

More of Herman’s research and photography can be seen at http://www.elizabethdherman.com/.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.

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