Segregation, poverty, violence and even death are just some of the threats many bereft women around the world face when their husbands die. American photojournalist Amy Toensing has dedicated four years to telling these women’s stories.
Believed to bring bad luck to their families, Hindu widows are often expelled from their family homes, shunned by society, forced to live in communes and beg on the streets. But many women are pushing back, turning tradition on its head – dressing in bright colours, wearing jewellery and stepping out of the shadows.
“In India there's this expectation, especially in more traditional spots, for widows to wear white,” says Amy. “I met a woman who was wearing the most colourful sari, and I remember asking her why she was wearing it. She replied, ‘There's a saying in India that if you see a woman in white in the morning, you're going to have bad luck all day.’ She didn't want to be the cause of somebody else's bad luck. She was this strong woman, questioning what was going on.”
What makes this woman's courage even more admirable is that, as well as a bereavement, she had also endured being sold in to service as a child, then forced into an arranged marriage. Life had not been kind to her. When she returned to her village, now “spoiled”, she was rejected. Many Indian widows end up living together in ashrams – religious sites – but have to beg to pay for rented accommodation.
“To be handed over at nine years’ old to this family by her family – it was out of her control,” says Toensing. “Where do you even start to try to improve this woman's life? And through no fault of her own, she has just ended up in this whole cycle, largely because she was female. They wouldn't have done that with a son. That's the kind of moment where you just don't know how to process it.”
Determined to tell these women’s stories, Toensing embarked on a long-term project about widows in India, Uganda, and Bosnia, which she has been working on since 2013, shooting on the Canon EOS 20D, EOS 5D Mark II, and EOS 5D Mark III. The idea for the project, called Widowhood, came to her in 2005 while she was travelling in Nepal. Making a detour to India, where in some communities widows are expected to spend the rest of their lives in mourning, she met and photographed women who had been stigmatised after the deaths of their husbands, and the project’s seeds were sown.
“The story stuck with me, but it wasn't until 2013 that I got a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting,” recalls Amy, who is a regular contributor to National Geographic, and has also worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Time magazine. “A writer and I proposed the story and we went to India for a month to work on it. We came back with a pretty big body of work, and that is when I went to National Geographic and it got picked up as a story. But until then it had only been India. With Geographic, we expanded the project to Uganda, Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Being a widow in Uganda can mean losing your children, home, land, dignity, and even your life. Although Ugandan law decrees that women and men have equal rights with regard to inheritance, the culture of violent land and property grabbing is deeply entrenched in society. Consequently, many widowed women find themselves socially outcast and stripped of everything they own.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the structure of entire communities shifted following the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, when more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed, says Amy. Women became the heads of households and many have been fighting for the rights of genocide victims since. Spending time working with the memory of the Bosnian conflict left Amy unable to get away from “moments of complete despair about what our society is, what humanity is,” but, despite this, she has worked tirelessly to show the strength, courage, and resilience of the women she’s met.
“I feel a lot of different responsibilities to my subjects,” she says. “I have a responsibility to show them with dignity, I have a responsibility to reveal their stories, I have a responsibility to listen to who they are, and hopefully that translates well and they feel it's an accurate reflection of what their voice is. All my work is collaborative. There’s an aspect of participation that has to happen, they have to be on board for their story to be told.”
I have a responsibility to show my subjects with dignity… to listen to who they are.
As with much of her work, Amy did a lot of research when making Widowhood, which was exhibited at this year’s Visa pour l’Image international festival of photojournalism in Perpignan. Newspaper articles, interviews, and even novels have all proved to be useful sources of information at one time or another within her work as a whole. “I like to immerse myself in research,” she says. “I really want to find the lyrical aspect of a story and the way I step back is to write about it. I'll write a stream of consciousness to figure out what the story is.”
Pitching to National Geographic requires work to be strong visually, Amy says, and she focused her project by coming up with themes or words for each place she visited. In India, she honed in on beauty and femininity because she felt these things had been stripped away from the women she was spending time with. There is no getting away from the bitter hardship these women endure, but Amy was determined to show them as strong but womanly individuals.
I wanted to highlight the feminine side of these women – to show that they are beautiful human beings
“They were really stunning women, but because of all the stigmas, there was a stripping down of their femininity,” she says. “I really wanted to highlight that side of these women – that they aren’t invisible, that they're still beautiful human beings.”