Irish photographers capture world’s poorest women

Women of Concern, a photographic exhibition chronicling the lives of women and children in some of the poorest nations of the developing world is currently showing in the Temple Bar Gallery of Photography. It features the work of three of Ireland's top female photo-journalists, Brenda Fitzsimons, Kim Haughton and Marie McCallan and documents the work of Concern and their partner, the Women's Support Association, in Haiti, Ethiopia and Bangladesh.

(Picture: From the exhibition "Women of Concern" © Kim Haughton 2010)

The photographs, taken in early 2010, offer an insight into the lives of people whose existence and stories are usually lost amongst the masses. Each photograph attempts to convey the humanity of the person featured and helps to express the realities of their lives. Many of the stories that accompany the images are harrowing, but as each woman is involved in the Women's Support Association, the stories are punctuated by a positive outcome.  

Women of Concern formed in 2009 to allow women from Ireland to join in solidarity with their counterparts in the developing world. Women are the primary victims of poverty and account for 70% of the world's one billion people living in poverty and for two thirds of the world's illiterate. Women in the developing world are uneducated, powerless, underfed and unheard. Women of Concern fund three projects in Haiti, Ethiopia and Bangladesh with the aim of improving the lives of their society's most marginalised giving them an education, vocational training, food to eat and a place to sleep.

Brenda Fitzsimon's is one of Ireland's leading press photographers and was the first female staff photographer with the Irish Times. Originally Brenda was sent to Haiti to document a Concern microfinance programme but changed the focus of her project to attempt to capture the horrors and realities of Haitian life in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake. The pride and resilience of the population can be clearly seen in the images of life in the devastated wasteland left behind.

It is in fact how ordinary people function, exist and survive the unimaginable that is the crux of this exhibition. Each photograph contributes to the viewer’s understanding of these women and the lives they lead. One of the most striking images in the exhibition is accompanied by the most affecting story. Marie McCallan's photograph of Smriti (pictured below) now aged 18, is a close-up image of a beautiful young women with an intensely questioning look. Since leaving her home at 11 she lived on the streets of Dhaka in Bangladesh where she was a victim of rape, sexual exploitation and homelessness. She is now part of Concern's Pavement Dweller Project and is fed and housed as she receives vocational training for a guaranteed job in a garment factory. She is just one of the many ex-pavement dwellers living at the centre which offers women and children free health-care, life-skills training, childcare and counselling in addition to food and shelter. 

(Picture: from the exhibition "Women of Concern" © Marie McCallan 2010)

When it came to naming the Pavement Dweller Centre Concern discovered that homelessness and poverty were not the most significant problems facing the group who wished the centre to be called Amaro Manush, which means "we are humans too" in Bangla. Concern found that pavement dwellers often feel that the biggest difficulty lies in the fact that their situation has robbed them of their human dignity. However, for the viewer of these highly emotive and affective photographs it is precisely that dignity that is most striking as each woman appears to be filled with confidence and pride.  

In Ethiopia, Kim Haughton’s photographs present more stories of women battling and conquering adversity with the help of Concern, women whose hardship is intensified by gender and who face sexual and domestic violence. With the help of Concern and the Women's Support Association's Self Help Group, many women can begin to be self-sustaining through savings and loan schemes. Women such as Alganesh Assefd can borrow money to buy goats which enable her to pay for her children's school fees and clothes. In Amhara, the region of Northern Ethiopia where Kim was based, there were 115 self-help groups with 2340 members, each enabling themselves to gain a better life for them and their children. 

The photographs communicate to the world what their female subjects will never get to vocalise, and do so in a powerful and effective manner. The viewer gains an invaluable insight into the day to day lives of these people, and sees how the projects improve their lives on the most basic levels. From the guarantee of a bed at night to the promise of a job, these projects work from a grass-roots level giving the women involved what they need most when they need it. This may seem like the most obvious approach, but can often be the exactly what many development projects fail to do. These projects allow the women involved to gain an education, earn a living and most importantly reclaim their dignity. 

Although at times the exhibition is harrowing and distressing, many of the photographs are moving, beautiful and poignant and offer us a unique insight into the plight of some of the poorest women in the world. Whilst informing us of the horror and hardship of the world, it also shows us that these are both surmountable by the human spirit and leaves the audience with a sense of hope for the future of these women and indeed the future of the developing world.  

The 'Women of Concern' exhibition coincides with International Women's Day on March 8 and will run in the Temple Bar Gallery of Photography until March 21.