Showcase: A Quiet Bridge to Young Victims – Child Abuse in Africa/South Africa – NYTimes.com

Showcase: A Quiet Bridge to Young Victims – Lens Blog – NYTimes.com.

Showcase: A Quiet Bridge to Young Victims

// #flashHeader{visibility:visible !important;}When she’s at work, Mariella Furrer sits on the floor. She doesn’t move, and rarely speaks.

For more than seven years, Ms. Furrer has been involved with a project so draining that she has had to seek medical help. Photographing young victims of sexual abuse in South Africa would be difficult for anyone, but Ms. Furrer, 41, is herself a victim of sexual abuse.

“There’s just no way that you can do a project like this and not be deeply, deeply affected on every level,” she said. “Emotionally, spiritually, physically.”

As part of her project, which will be published as a book this fall, Ms. Furrer has spent much of her time observing interviews conducted by the South African police with children who reported abuse. She often posed a few questions of her own, sitting on the floor so children didn’t feel threatened or obliged to speak. If they cried, she held their hands.

DESCRIPTIONMariella Furrer A young boy cries at his classmate’s memorial service.

Gaining access to victims was a sensitive and often difficult task. The children Ms. Furrer photographed, who came from different social and economic circumstances, were surrounded by child’s-rights activists and protection officers. She worked with nongovernmental organizations, clinics and the police. To better explain her own approach and to gain their trust, she showed them “A Broken Landscape,” a project by Gideon Mendel documenting the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa in first-person accounts.

Mr. Furrer said she has never taken a photo without permission of both parent and child, except in the case of infants.

“The initial consent has always come from a guardian of the child,” she said, “but then I have always explained to the child that I am working on a story about the bad things that people do to children, that it also happened to me and that I really hope that one day showing these photos to people will help to stop this happening to other children.”

What set the stage for her projects on social issues, upon her return to Africa in 1993 after studying at the International Center of Photography in New York, was covering the Rwandan genocide. She has since put together essays on female genital mutilation in Kenya, a shortage of nurses in Malawi and the effects of trachoma, an infectious eye disease, in Ethiopia.

Ms. Furrer began exploring the issue of child abuse in 2002 after shooting a Marie Clare assignment on infant rape in Kenya. The more she researched, the more preoccupied she became. Although child abuse is a global issue, Ms. Furrer centered her work in Johannesburg, which was then home to a special police unit that focused on family violence, child protection and sexual offenses. Her work was featured in an event known as a Slideluck Potshow Nairobi in mid-January. Ms. Furrer now splits her time between Nairobi and Johannesburg.

DESCRIPTIONMariella Furrer A search-and-rescue officer handed out flyers in a search for a missing 7-year-old girl. The girl was never found.

An estimated 50 child rapes are reported daily in South Africa, Ms. Furrer said, but children’s rights advocates activists believe the actual rate could be much higher. On an average day, she said, two to eight children visit a local police station to report abuse.

This does not make for an easy photographic mission. “When you are seeing day in and day out a little girl or boy saying that they were raped, it takes such unbelievable strength,” Ms. Furrer said. But she said she feels too involved to move on.

“The resilience of these young children, the dedication of the workers, the police, social workers, all these organizations that deal with these children — that really motivates me,” she said. “I want to know more. I want to speak to those kids.”

Having finished gathering material for her book, Ms. Furrer is developing a global fundraising campaign and a Web site to raise awareness of child sexual abuse. She also continues to document some of the children she has come across in South Africa.

DESCRIPTIONMariella Furrer

Among the many disquieting images in her portfolio is a photo of a pair of tiny legs layered in scars: a physical manifestation of the emotional pain inflicted by rape. The girl in the picture suffers from dissociative identity disorder, which was formerly called multiple personality disorder. Ms. Furrer, who has beheld dozens of the girl’s identities, said that many of them bore the trait of self-mutilation. “So every time they come out they want to cut,” she said.

Ms. Furrer also devotes time to adults who were abused as children.

“The child just doesn’t have the vocabulary or — really — understanding of those emotions to be able to give you a real description of what it felt like and how it’s affected them,” she said. “As an adult they are much more able to really talk about the shame and humiliation, the fear.”

She quoted one of the men she interviewed for her book, a 39-year-old who was sexually abused at a young age by several men and women. “Part of me died many years ago,” he told her. “I’ve been mourning it my whole life.”

Ms. Furrer said, “For me, his life story is a testimony to the damage.”

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