BY THE open window of the House of Slaves in Goree Island, Senegal, Genoveva Casanova caught a glimpse of a face, which, as village folklore went, was the face of death. The building was a forlorn place, where whole families were taken in five years ago with the promise of a new life, but only to be separated in groups of women, men and children. “Poor families were transported to this island only to be put in slave houses,” says Casanova, a humanitarian worker from Mexico, who has been photographing refugees, especially women and children, around the world for a decade. “One by one, these women would throw themselves down from the windows of their rooms, unable to bear the pain of separation from their husbands and children,” she says. The image of a woman from the House of Slaves is part of an exhibition of photographs by Casanova, which was mounted recently in New Delhi. Titled No Blink, the exhibition at Cervantes Institute, the cultural arm of the Spanish embassy, had nearly 110 photographs from as far as Ecuador and as near as Bodh Gaya, Bihar.
“Each picture I took has a different story to tell,” says Casanova, who balances her profession as a worker with humanitarian agencies like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with that of a photographer in the middle of crises. “It is the women and children who always pay the biggest price in disasters and conflicts,” she adds, explaining the chief protagonists of her works. “It is the women who make the future of children and they are the ones who take action in protecting their families, earning a living and making their children go to school,” she says, adding: “If we protect and help women, we are protecting and helping children.”
Talking about the beginning of her career in 2005, Casanova says, “After I studied photography in Madrid, I never thought of it as a profession. I loved taking pictures and I love humanitarian work.” Every time she would go on a humanitarian mission, Casanova would take her camera along. And when she sat down with pictures from the field later, she realised that there were many women, “most of all faces”. “There is something in the eyes of victims of disasters and conflicts… the way you look at things and the way they look at things,” says Casanova.
“I am not a feminist,” she replies to a query about the decision to choose women as her subjects. “I think feminism thinks of women as exactly the same as men. But we are thankfully different. It is from that difference, the virtues and capacities of a woman, that we enrich society,” she adds. As per Casanova, whose first humanitarian work was with the indigenous people in the mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico, taking pictures is part of her humanitarian work. “Photographs tell people what is happening around the world. They tell the stories of these women and children, and they are part of the mission to help the world be more conscious of the pain of others.”
During her first visit to India and Nepal in 2007 as part of a UNHCR team, Casanova successfully argued with the Nepalese foreign minister to allow refugees from Myanmar, who had been living in Nepal for over three decades, to be given exit permits to help them relocate to Australia, Canada and the US. “The pressure from the Myanmar government was stopping Nepal from issuing exit permits to refugees to relocate abroad,” she says. “My objective was to get the approval of the government and we achieved that,” she says beaming.
In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2011, Casanova was shocked to receive an offer to buy an orphaned girl in a camp—one of the most difficult moments during her humanitarian work. “I didn’t say anything then. There were two girls sleeping in a carton like they were kittens. I bought them food, milk and clothes,” she recalls. “With UNHCR’s help, we located a house for the orphans, which took them in. Children (being sold) in the black market was a huge problem in Haiti following the earthquake,” she says.
In the city of Petra in Jordan, Casanova saw Bedouins, who had been living in caves for centuries. “They were relocated under different schemes, but they never wanted to live in modern conditions and would return to Petra,” she says. In Kenya, she met women from Masai, a respected tribe of men and women warriors. “They are famous because they have rejected modern life and try to keep their tradition as a counterpart to modern life,” says Casanova, who has shown her works in five different cities in Spain. “They are not poor, but they like their traditions,” she adds. On the troubled border of Ecuador and Colombia, she found men, women, children and rebels using the same ferry to travel. During another humanitarian mission in Esmeralda Island of Ecuador, close to the border with Colombia, she came across a girl in a community of refugees on the mangrove island. “They were hiding from FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) rebels and the paramilitary. The drug mafia from Colombia had taken over the village and built labs for making drugs. This tiny girl, whose mother was physically assaulted every day by her boyfriend, a worker in one of these labs, would always come near me during my stay there. When I was leaving, she just started screaming,” she says thoughtfully, adding, “It is very difficult to think of a humanitarian crisis when you are away from it as opposed to when you are in it.”
No Blink will travel to Mexico City to be shown at the Museum of Tolerance and Memory in May.
By Faizal Khan
Faizal Khan is a freelancer