Women on the edge | January 30, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - January 30, 2013

Women on the edge

In places where being female is dangerous, a Menlo Park photographer finds courage and dignity

by Sandy Brundage

As Mark Tuschman shares photographs taken in corners of the world far from the comforts of his Menlo Park home, you wonder what memories drift through his mind. The images are crystal sharp with texture and feeling — the age-old eyes of a teenage bride peering at the camera, a woman standing with her family on a dirt floor.

The bride is Nazia, whose husband tried twice to kill her over a disappointing dowry. He'd gotten a motorcycle for marrying her, but wanted a car, which her family couldn't afford. She turned to a women's group run by Action India for support in getting a divorce before he could try to murder her again.

"These dowries are ongoing blackmail," Mr. Tuschman explains.

But his photos don't tell the stories of beaten-down women surrendering to terrible circumstances. They tell the stories of women in horrible circumstances — starving, beaten, dying — finding the strength, somehow, to nurture hope.

How much of that hope is created by the efforts of "armies of people helping people" defies precise measurement, but the photos tell their stories, too.

The health care workers are the unsung heroes, according to Mr. Tuschman, dedicating their lives to providing basic services to communities where the wait time for a medical appointment measures in years, not hours. In Mozambique, for example, he said there are about 25 obstetricians for a population of 20 million, and almost all of the doctors live in the capital, an impossible trek for many villagers.

"Women in the United States don't worry about dying from pregnancy," Mr. Tuschman notes. "It's a major issue elsewhere."

Crossing worlds

On a trip to Northern Nigeria in 2010 funded by the Packard Foundation to document their health care and educational outreach programs, he almost left after three days as internecine violence escalated. "It was like being in a war zone, and I'm not a warzone photographer," Mr. Tuschman says. Fascinated by what his camera could capture, he ended up staying for nearly two weeks.

"(There was) a lot of dust and the smell of smoke, mostly from people cooking with wood fires," he recalls. "It was very chaotic with almost an overwhelming number of people — especially children — in the streets. At one point we had to drive back to town in the dark after a shoot with some nomadic tribes people and was told that it was a bit dangerous as there were robbers active on the roads in the evening."

His team tried to visit hospitals, but found the facilities closed by a government that regarded medical care as a waste of money. Hotels had unreliable electricity and little food. At one place, staying at an emir's compound, "I opened the door to the bathroom and it was swarming with mosquitos. I told them I would sleep in the car but they found another place that was unbearably hot. The next morning we drove to a town where my instinct at some point told me not to leave the car — there were so many angry young idle men and boys on the street."

In his photographs, community workers trained by Planned Parenthood walk the streets with bullhorn speakers to educate young men about safe sex and contraception. Another shot shows pregnant teenagers huddled together, "iconic of the condition of many young girls in Nigeria who are destined to have multiple, frequent pregnancies. There is sadness and resignation in their expressions as even at this young age, they seem to know their destiny," the photographer wrote on his blog.

The stylistic influence of role models Marvin Wax and Sebastiao Salgado tempers the sadness of the photographs, summoning the innate dignity of each subject. Mr. Tuschman says that his work has been criticized for being too pretty — perhaps a holdover from his commercial work, which he described as "making things look better than they are" — but in the words of Mr. Salgado: "'If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture. That is my way of seeing things.'"

The road less traveled

Now a renowned international human rights photographer, Mr. Tuschman did not start out making a living with a camera. The New York native came to Berkeley in the 1960s to study computer science in graduate school. He worked at SRI and Stanford as a gnawing dissatisfaction with doctoral-level research warred with the need to provide for a growing family until one day he asked for a camera. Commercial photography, he thought, might be the solution.

"I was basically throwing away all my education. My parents were very upset," he says. "Fortunately my wife was very understanding and supportive."

The family rented out the top floor of their Menlo Park home to make ends meet during the early years. Now, with son Avi and daughter Eva on their own, he's enjoying the chance to focus on projects such as "Women on the Edge," a book about "the whole story of women's lack of autonomy over their bodies and lives in developing countries," emphasizing that the work also celebrates "the efforts made to empower them."

Mr. Tuschman is seeking sponsors to cover the estimated $250,000 cost of producing the book and a multimedia campaign to increase awareness of women's rights. All proceeds will go to the Global Fund for Women to help the organization grow, he says. "The programs are on such a small scale, and the need is so great. It's my biggest frustration."

There are no easy solutions. "What do you do when education isn't a real option yet?" he muses, fingers calling up one photograph after another on a laptop. Now he pauses on a set showing a woman painstakingly embroidering with scarlet thread. An American had established a design school in India to teach tribal women how to support themselves as artisans.

Another set focuses on women waiting for surgeries to repair fistulas, holes torn in their bodies during childbirth. Sometimes they wait for more than 10 years at hospitals so undersupplied that patients sleep on the floor. What maintains his faith in humanity despite witnessing the tragedies wrought by poverty? In a way, it's the act of witnessing:

"The human condition is wrought with great uncertainty and suffering, yet the human spirit and the hope for a better life can withstand terrible hardships and even grow stronger in the face of adversity. The women you will meet in these pages have constantly inspired me, and I've come to understand that their cause is our cause, their humanity is our humanity. It is my fervent hope that we in this country, blessed as we are with freedom and great material wealth, can join hands to support the legitimate aspirations of these forgotten women and offer them a real and enduring sense of hope and justice," he writes in the preface to "Women on the Edge."

Generations of photographs, generations of women, girls, children. Each slightly richer in circumstance than those who came before, and each one sharp as crystal, caught on the edge of hope by the camera.


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