“A woman’s war is distinct. She not only has to be a fighter, but also is expected to maintain and eventually return to her traditional role as a mother, wife, and anchor of the family at the end of the conflict.” Here, Elizabeth D. Herman describes her ongoing work for the documentary “A Woman’s War,” where she explores the challenges and recovery process that so many women have to face, and dutifully tells the stories that have gone untold. Beyond this, Herman uncovers the complexities of conflict with the aim to debunk preconceptions about women who are involved in war. As a 2010 graduate from Tufts University with a concentration in Political Science and Economics, this is just one of the projects she has taken on. Herman recently returned from Bangladesh where she spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow exploring how politics influence the national histories in textbooks. The Boston native now calls Brooklyn home, where her career as a photojournalist and researcher thrives.
Herman’s powerful work gives a new meaning to the phrase, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ She manages to capture the powerful emotions behind the intricate squint of an eye or a wrinkle on a nose, opening a window into the life of her subjects that can’t be captured quite the same as with writing alone. Herman agreed to an interview, where she opened up to us about the people she has met and experiences she has had thus far throughout her recent projects and travels. In an effort to tell stories as authentically and candidly as she can, Herman shared revelations that she has had about her own way of thinking that has affected her narrative of others.
FK: In telling stories through powerful photographs, what kind of challenges do you face when capturing moments and expressions that perhaps differ from other forms of journalism?
ED: Photography is a powerful media in that it uses singular moments to speak to larger issues and themes. Sometimes it does that in a literal way, illustrating an event or individual, but sometimes it’s less so, seeking to evoke feelings or speak to larger themes through imagery. Working on a project about memory, making images that worked to the latter was really important to me—but also really challenging. For me, working with photography has been a really powerful way to interact with these stories—visiting the places that women speak about in their testimonies, photographing them in their lives, making their portraits. While writing has still been an important part of the process, the photographs have let me interact with the stories in an entirely different way, and I think pushed me to go further than I might have otherwise. The difficulty with that, though, is that you don’t always get the image that you’re looking for—or you think you’re looking for—which means that it never quite feels complete in the way that a written piece might.
FK: You recently returned from Bangladesh where you delved into how politics influence the writing of national histories in textbooks; what can you share about your findings?
ED: I lived in Bangladesh the year after I graduated from Tufts, on a Fulbright to research the ways in which political forces have shaped the writing of the national social science curricula from the country’s independence in 1971 to the present. While A Woman’s War wasn’t officially supported by the Fulbright, the two projects dovetailed in a really interesting way—both were, at their core, about dominant and alternative narratives, about whose stories have become the ones that are widely accepted, and why. For the textbook research, I used the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh as a case study, tracking how the retelling shifted over the past four decades. Control of that narrative specifically is hugely politically important—so much so that revising it has been a priority to any political party that has taken office in Bangladesh, with such changes in textbooks emerging very shortly after shifts in political leadership. The ways in which these official narratives have been contested, and subsequently distributed to the citizenry is fascinating on a national level, for the effect that it has on politics, collective memory, and national identity. But on a more personal level, it means that there has been little room for individual narratives. The textbook research and A Woman’s War looked at the memory of the 1971 War at the national and individual level, respectively, each work informing and building upon the other.
FK: Your ongoing work with your documentary, “A Woman’s War,” challenges the notion that warfare is male-only space. How does “A Woman’s War” challenge gender stereotypes? What is your goal in interviewing women around the world who have been at war?
ED: Rather than replacing one dominant narrative with another, I hope that A Woman’s War encourages the viewer to think of the stories that are not being heard about conflict, both during war and in the shadow of its aftermath. Studying history growing up, I remember learning about women’s role in conflict as that of supporter or victim, and rarely a combination of the two. I was interested to hear what women would say of their own stories—if they were writing, how would it be different? In the beginning, I solely sought women who were actively involved in war—as soldiers, nurses, organizers, and so on—avoiding women who had been victimized in any way, because I thought the narrative of woman as victim had been put forth far too often and too loudly in the past. But then I realized that I was doing exactly the thing that troubled me, and trying to replace one rigid, singular narrative with another rigid, singular narrative. In speaking to more women, I came to realize that—of course—there are complexities to their stories, that there are women who are actively engaging and are also victimized. Or are victimized because of their engagement. Or any combination of any number of things.
And for me, that’s what has emerged from this project thus far—that something as complex and widely covered as conflict is too often trimmed down into too neat a package, and I was curious to know more about its intricacies, and how its impact continues to linger and shape these women’s lives, even after the war official ends.
FK: As a world traveler, activist, and artist—can you tell us about one photograph that you have taken that stands out to you, and why?
ED: The most recent chapter of A Woman’s War, in Northern Ireland, was made during a much too short trip to Belfast last August. I arrived, not knowing anyone in the city, the day before a bank holiday, hoping that I’d be able to follow a couple of the leads that other contacts had passed along and end up with connecting with women who were interested in participating in the project.
A couple days later I met Eibhlin Glenholmes, a former member of the IRA and current Family Support Coordinator of Tar Anall, a non-profit working for former Republican political prisoners in West Belfast. She was naturally wary of me at first; as a well-established non-profit, and as a well-known former political prisoner herself, she’d had many journalists approach her over the years for her story. She said that I needed to know the history of the Irish struggle before I could interview her or any of the other former IRA members with whom she was willing to put me in touch.
Talking with her over the course of a few days, and speaking to her about the other four phases of the project, she began to see what the work was about, and agreed to an interview. The conversation was one of the most fascinating I’ve had along the many that this project has led me to—here was a woman who is seen as a terrorist by many people, was the most wanted woman in the UK for 23 years, e. The conversation went on for so long that I almost didn’t get to make her portrait—I had to run off to another interview she had set up for me, and only got to take two frames before leaving, neither of which came out well at all. But in the rush, I forgot my battery charger at Tar Anall, where we had met, and she agreed to meet me back there for a few minutes to retrieve it—and then (reluctantly) to sit for a few more minutes. It was dusk, and the light had significantly dimmed by then, but the portrait that came out—the most recent one in the entire project—really strikes me as a reflection of our conversation and the many sides of the project as a whole.