February 23, 2014
Jean, fifty-five, in Ngilima, a.k.a. “The Triangle of Death.” Congo, July 24, 2013. Photograph by Rena Effendi/INSTITUTE for The Sunday Times.
While working on a story in the Democratic Republic of Congo about the traumatic effects of violence against women and children perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, I met Jean. A shy woman, she stood outside her tiny, bare house made of straw and mud under a pallapa roof. L.R.A. rebels had abducted her and murdered her husband in front of her eyes. One of the commanders ordered her lips to be cut off with a razor. She recounted: “I watched my lips fall on my knees like a donut.” I wanted to make a formal portrait of Jean. I knew her story needed to be told, but I felt uncomfortable posing her, fearing it might become exploitative. But in the middle of the shoot she giggled and asked me: “Are you going to give me the picture? I don’t have any photos of myself, I want one!” She raised a whirlwind of thoughts in my head: Is she ready to face this portrait, will it remind her of her trauma? Or is she so strong that she would not flinch? Did she just want her picture, because it’s normal? Does she have vanity like the rest of us? Jean was calm and able to talk about her horrific events without breaking down. All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed by her toughness and poise.—Rena Effendi.

Jean, fifty-five, in Ngilima, a.k.a. “The Triangle of Death.” Congo, July 24, 2013. Photograph by Rena Effendi/INSTITUTE for The Sunday Times.

While working on a story in the Democratic Republic of Congo about the traumatic effects of violence against women and children perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, I met Jean. A shy woman, she stood outside her tiny, bare house made of straw and mud under a pallapa roof. L.R.A. rebels had abducted her and murdered her husband in front of her eyes. One of the commanders ordered her lips to be cut off with a razor. She recounted: “I watched my lips fall on my knees like a donut.” I wanted to make a formal portrait of Jean. I knew her story needed to be told, but I felt uncomfortable posing her, fearing it might become exploitative. But in the middle of the shoot she giggled and asked me: “Are you going to give me the picture? I don’t have any photos of myself, I want one!” She raised a whirlwind of thoughts in my head: Is she ready to face this portrait, will it remind her of her trauma? Or is she so strong that she would not flinch? Did she just want her picture, because it’s normal? Does she have vanity like the rest of us? Jean was calm and able to talk about her horrific events without breaking down. All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed by her toughness and poise.—Rena Effendi.

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