Twelve years ago, French-German photographer Ann-Christine Woehrl was at the opening of an artist friend’s exhibition in Munich, Germany. There, she met the artist’s friend, Hans, who had suffered a tragic burn accident in childhood and had a severely scarred face. “When he entered the room, people looked away, pretending he wasn’t there. Some looked through him, making him feel invisible with their behaviour. This left a deep impact on me,” recalls Woehrl.
Woehrl’s deep-seated distress found an outlet in In/Visible, her latest project that documents the lives of women survivors of acid and burn attacks. Currently showing at the Museum Natur und Mensch in Freiburg, Germany, the project is a mix of portrait and documentary imagery and focusses on the lives of women from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Uganda. “I wanted to know how these survivors dealt with their disfigurements, and how societal attitudes had deepened their physical scars into their soul,” says Woehrl.
Her journey began four years ago, when she visited Vijayawada and met Dr Lakshmi Saleem, a plastic surgeon, who was offering a week-long operation programme for acid and burn attack victims at her clinic. Here, Woehrl was introduced to Neehari, a woman from a small village nearby, who had suffered 55 per cent burns in a self-immolating incident, in a desperate attempt to escape an abusive marriage. When she was 19, Neehari’s parents fixed her marriage without her permission. When Neehari returned home three months later, to unsympathetic parents, she set herself ablaze, killing her unborn child. “She was the first woman I met for the project, and I was amazed by her sheer strength. She did not camouflage her past,” says Woehrl.
After receiving a grant from Stiftung Kulturwerk, a German cultural foundation, Woehrl expanded the project’s reach and visited other countries. She enlisted help from the Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), an organisation that works towards rehabilitating acid and burn victims. “It is a global form of violence spurred by different motives — economic situations, jealousy, dowry and rejection. There was one commonality though, they were all treated as outcasts because their appearance was different,” she says. Connecting with the local partner organisations of ASTI in different countries, Woehrl sought help from their staff to translate the stories, struggles and hopes of the women who had been maimed, blinded and disfigured in a horrifying twist of fate.
In Uganda, she met Flavia, a victim of an attack by a jilted lover. In Pakistan, it was Nusrat, who had been married off on the condition that her brother would marry her husband’s sister. When he chose another woman, her husband and brother-in-law exacted revenge. Sokneang from Cambodia was a karaoke singer, who was attacked by the jealous wife of a man who was a frequent visitor at the club. Through the Acid Survivors Foundation in India, she also met Kolkata-based Makima, whose neighbour’s mother threw acid on her for rejecting her son’s proposal. “While the meetings involved them revisiting past demons, they poured their hearts out. Perhaps, because, after years of ostracisation, they felt like their identities and stories were being acknowledged,” says Woehrl. In 2013, when she visited India again, she saw that Neehari had undergone eight surgeries; she was living by herself in Hyderabad, assisting Dr Saleem. “Once, on our way to celebrate her best friend’s birthday, Neehari removed her scarf for the first time in public. She called it her ‘independence day’,” says Woehrl.
For every portrait, Woehrl places her subject against a black background, letting them be the sole focus of the image. “The black backdrop helped neutralise their social environment and gave them a special frame, in which they could present themselves as they felt, rather than as tragic victims.” Other images capture the women at different moments in their daily lives — Renuka from Nepal lifts a dumbbell over her head during an exercise routine while Flavia hangs out with her girlfriends. The journey was emotionally challenging for Woehrl too, as she interacted with her subjects for over two years: “I forged deep friendships with them. There were feelings of abandonment when I would leave.”
In/Visible was also exhibited at the Ethnological Museum of Munich and Galerie Fait & Cause in Paris. Woehrl is in talks to take it to more countries, including India, and will continue to collaborate with the ASTI and work closely with her subjects to spread awareness. “Due to our discomfort, the survivors end up with deep inner scars, beyond their disfigurements. I called it In/Visible as I wanted to give them visibility and by showcasing their strength, encourage them in their paths,” she says.
Neehari, who now works as an assistant at Redefine Plastic Surgery Centre in Hyderabad, is putting together her own trust for the cause. “I want to show myself to the world. What words can’t express, these powerful photographs can,” she says.