It's been an ugly counterpart to war as long as there's been war itself - the rape and sexual enslavement of women. Finally declared a "crime against humanity" in a long overdue vote by the UN Security Council in 2008, the rape of women during conflict is still rarely punished. And although it's received more media coverage in recent years - thanks to conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in particular - there are still few women who will speak about their experiences. Which is no surprise, considering both the intense humiliation and powerlessness experienced by rape victims and also the taboos in many cultures that cause these women to be further stigmatized as "damaged goods" when they try to return to normal lives after the war.
During the five years I spent covering the aftermath of war in Bosnia, I never met a woman who admitted to having been raped - although there were an estimated 20,000 women raped during that war, part of a specific attempt by Bosnian Serbs to impregnate Bosnian Muslims as a way to establish Serb superiority. I am sure I was often in the presence of women who had suffered such brutal treatment, but the subject was never discussed in my company - and I was assured it was rarely, if ever, discussed in private either, given the suffering and stigma attached to the rapes.
Which is why I find Jan Banning's book on "comfort women" in Indonesia such a powerful accomplishment. Together with writer and cultural anthropologist Hilde Janssen, he succeeded in interviewing and photographing 50 women who had been forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese forces during World War II. This soft-bound book features 18 of those photographs, as well as an intro by Janssen and short pieces of text about the women at the end of the book. The photographs are separated by reproductions of Japanese war posters - a reminder of the nationalism and war mongering that empowered the soldiers who turned these women into casualties of war.
I almost always pick up a photography book and look at images first, saving text for later. I did that with Comfort Women, encountering the directness of these almost life-sized, head-and-shoulder portraits with no knowledge of the women's individual stories, only the awareness that they had been sexually enslaved during World War II. Then I turned to the intro and the text - learning little details about these women and their experiences, about some of them being as young as 10 or 11 when forced into military brothels, about the shame of being called "Japanese hand-me-downs" by cruel neighbors, about the unexpected joy of finding love with a man who proposed marriage in spite of the taboos.
And I realized that Comfort Women should be read first and "seen" later. The text is sparse, to the point and makes for compelling reading; it illumines the faces that appear in the book, and gives a greater understanding of the bravery it took for these women to openly discuss their past - and to show their faces. Banning's portraits, with their shallow depth of field, force us to focus on the women's eyes, to confront dignity, sorrow, despair, fear, determination - and deep humanity. They have chosen to show their faces, according to Janssen's intro, for a variety of reasons, including their desire to be acknowledged and compensated for the suffering they endured. They have put aside their shame, she writes, to "look the world in the eyes."
Sara Terry A former staff correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and magazine freelance writer, Sara Terry made a mid-career transition into documentary photography in the late 1990s. Her long-term project about the aftermath of war in Bosnia -- “Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace” -- was published in September 2005 by Channel Photographics, and was named as one of the best photo books of the year by Photo District News. Her work has been widely exhibited, at such venues as the United Nations, the Museum of Photography in Antwerp, and the Moving Walls exhibition at the Open Society Institute. She is the founder of The Aftermath Project (www.theaftermathproject.org), a non-profit grant program which helps photographers cover the aftermath of conflict. She is currently directing and producing "Fambul Tok," a documentary about a post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation program in Sierra Leone, which recently won a grant from the Sundance Documentary Institute.