Editor’s Note: None of the images in this post are graphic, but the content and captions might be upsetting to some.
The realities revealed by photography are not always of the pleasant variety, because for all of the sunsets and kittens and weddings in the world — all wonderful and worth capturing — there is suffering and horror and pain that is just as worthy of our photographic attention.
Photographer Mariella Furrer has spent over a decade of her photographic career focusing on the latter, documenting the stories of the survivors and families of child sexual abuse in South Africa.
Those stories — told through her photography, through interviews, and sometimes even though victims’ artwork and poetry — come together in her 700-page book My Piece of Sky, a culmination of what might be called Furrer’s life’s work.
A girl supports her friend, who was allegedly raped with another girl during a school outing. Johannesburg General Hospital. November 2002
This photographic journey began for Furrer in 2002, when she was asked to shoot a story about infant rape in South Africa for Marie Claire. However, after realizing just how shockingly vast this problem was, she knew that a single magazine article wasn’t going to cut it.
Thus began a now 12-year-old project at the Johannesburg-based Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, where she has recorded the harsh realities of child sexual abuse in incredibly raw and hard-to-stomach photographs that never reveal the children’s faces, but do a tremendous amount to further their cause and tell their stories.
The photos, especially once you read the captions, may very well bring you to tears. But this is a reality nobody should ignore:
A young girl attempts to get out of the room where she is to have a medical forensic examination after a 9yr old relative admitted to playing sexually “games” with her. It was later found that the young boy had himself been abused so they were both sent to counselling. The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children. Johannesburg, March 2003
Prof. Lorna Jacklin, a neurodevelopmental paediatrician and founder of the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, begins a medical check up on a 2 1/2yr old girl who was sexually abused by a man living in the same house as her family. He would give her her sweets and fruits. Her mother realized something was wrong because her daughter had become hyper -active and was simulating sexual movements. Prof. Jacklin found that the little girl had been penetrated, either digitally (with a finger) or the tip of a penis.. When she was asked to lie down for the medical check up she spread her legs as she had been trained to do by the man. TheTeddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, Johannesburg. November 2002
Four young girls, survivors of rape, attend group therapy at Childline in Johannesburg.
The mutilated legs of Susanna, a 24yr old girl, who has Disocciative Identity Disorder (DID), previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Having endured severe ritual abuse for almost 18 years, Susanna developed DID as a coping mechanism and has in excess of 300 different identities who all struggle with the abuse inflicted on them, and most of them including Susanna are self-mutilators. I have personally spoken to over 50 different identities. Each with horrific stories of abuse.
A 10yr old girl gets a hug after talking to Tinka Labuschagne, a senior education specialist with the Ministry of Education. Tinka was called in to the school after the young girl disclosed to her teacher the previous day that her brother and two of his friends had been sexually abusing her since she was 6yrs old. She alleged that she had been raped, sodomised and forced to perform oral sex on the boys. She had severe problems with her eyes, a sore throat, and discomfort in vagina. It was suspected that she was suffering from gonorrhea. Her 16yr old sister was also being forced to have sex with the boys. Thembisa, January 2006
Chris, a 9yr old boy is driven to the Police Child Protection Unit to see if a police social worker can get a statement from him. Chris was brutally gang raped and then beaten with metal pipes and sticks by a group of ‘friends’ he had playing with. His ‘friends’, two 8yr olds, two 11yr olds and a 13yr old, then tied him to a tree and left him there overnight to die. The following morning they came back to see if he was still alive. He was. So they untied him and told him to go and wash himself in a nearby river. A police officer investigating another related case in the area found Chris disoriented, and wandering alongside the river. His whole body was bruised and his eyes so swollen they were almost swollen shut. He was immediately hospitalised. The social worker was unable to get a statement from him as he was too traumatised and scared to talk, so the perpetrators never went to trial. Police suspect that the attack on Chris was related to the other case in the area where a number of Springbok (gazelles) had been brutally killed on a neighbouring farm. It is suspected that on seeing his ‘friends’ beating the animals to death with metal pipes, he threatened to tell on them and they turned on him. Kuilsrivier, Western Cape, March 2004
Insp. ‘Stroppie’ Grobelaar, a Search & Rescue officer with the Police Dog Unit in Soweto, and his dog, Fargu, search nearby rivers and dams for the body of 7yr old Kamogelo “Kamo” Sekome. Johannesburg, December 2005
Volunteers from all over Pretoria are debriefed before beginning a search for 7yr old Sheldean. Pretoria, February 2007.
Friends and relative comfort Lebohang Mokoena, 3yr old S’bongile’s aunt and the person who was looking after her when she disappered. Kliptown Community Hall. Soweto, Johannesburg, December 2003.
A schoolmate of Sheldean’s cries during her memorial service. Pretoria, March 2007.
Members of the ANC Women’s League hold out flyers that they were distributing at the funeral of 3yr old S’bongile Mokoena who was raped and murdered on November 8, 2003. Soweto, December 2003.
People protest outside Pretoria Magistrate court where Andrew Jordaan is to appear and be charged with murder. He was previously charged with kidnapping, but in an interview with Supt Piet Byleveld he admitted he killed Sheldean and did a point out of the crime scene
Furrer herself was a victim of molestation when she was five years old, and so she understands and can relate to these children on a deeper level than just any photographers. For that reason, she often photographed them using an inconspicuous point-and-shoot, spoke to the children and promised to stop anytime.
Speaking to Slate about the project, she explained how difficult this experience was for her as a photographer and human being:
It kind of fell upon me. I can’t explain it. If it had been any other project, I would have done it in four years, but with this kind of topic, I was working at 30 percent because 70 percent of the time you’re just dealing with all the emotional baggage and just trying to get up again to continue doing it. … It really pushed me to the edge. There’s no way to deal with these sorts of crimes against children and be normal and be the same. … It will change you forever
To find out more about the project, be sure to visit the Slate piece (which is exceptional), or head over to the My Piece of Sky website where you can also purchase the book. And if you’d like to learn more about Furrer or browse through the rest of her portfolio, you can do so by visiting her website.
Image credits: Photographs by Mariella Furrer and used with permission