Blood, Sweat, Tears: A Pulitzer Story p. 12

By: SI LIBERMAN

STEPHANIE WELSH, A gutsy, 21-year-old college dropout at the time, paid an extraordinary price to get the bloody pictures that earned her this year’s Pulitzer Prize in the feature photography category.
To document an African tribal clitoral circumcision rite with her Nikon in Kenya, she taught herself Swahili, spent two weeks living with the 16-year-old victim’s family in a hut made of cow dung and straw, walked more than 15 miles in 100-degree temperatures and quenched her thirst and hunger with goat milk laced with cow blood.
Welsh had dropped out of the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University in 1994, flew to Kenya and landed a $100-a-month job as a photography intern with the Daily Nation, a Nairobi newspaper with a 200,000-plus circulation that publishes English and Swahili editions.
“I felt like I wasn’t ready to graduate,” she explained. “What was my motivation in going to Africa? I was very interested in the emerging press in developing countries.”
After being turned away at an earlier tribal circumcision ceremony, the young photographer gained entree with the help of a female acquaintance. The acquaintance knew the family, “was very much opposed to circumcision” and agreed to accompany her to the native village. From Nairobi, it was a 10-hour, 200-mile trip by bus, hired van and car.
To ingratiate herself with the family, Welsh gave them a goat. It paved the way for an invitation to stay with the family and observe the festivities.
“The goat cost me about $30 U.S.,” she said. “You give gifts they can use. Maybe 200 or 300 friends, neighbors and relatives showed up for the ceremony, singing, drinking homemade honey beer and bearing gifts ? money, goats, cows, tea leaves, sugar.”
The 15 photos were shot in April 1995, distributed by the Newhouse News Service and published in 12 U.S. newspapers. They also earned her a second-place prize in the World Press Photo Contest, the world’s largest news photography competition.
They show the teenager, Seita Lengila, being prepared for circumcision, her head being shaved to symbolize the shedding of childhood and her body being painted with okra. The surgery is done with an ordinary razor blade without anesthesia as three women hold her down.
“She kept crying, ‘I’m dying. I’m going to die,’ ” Welsh said. “I felt very attached to her, held her hand and couldn’t help crying myself. I deliberately blurred the picture of the women restraining Seita because that’s what it seemed like ? a big blur and a scream.
“Everybody was celebrating, and I went back inside the hut with her, crying, I was emotionally drained, dehydrated, embarrassed. I couldn’t come out and show my face. Outside I heard someone say something like, ‘Why are white people so weak?’
“When Seita staggered out and into the bush to examine herself in the light, I wasn’t even thinking when I took that picture.”
It turned out to be the most widely published photo of all ? a side view of the wounded girl bent over examining the area where her labia and clitoris had been excised.
Welsh learned that a girl in a neighboring village had died after undergoing a similar ritual circumcision.
“That doesn’t stop them,” she said. “They just assume the girl had sinned, and it was God’s will.”
Leaving the African village was another trying experience.
“The only car in the village had broken down,” she said. “We had to walk 15 or more miles in 100-degree heat on dirt roads to reach the town of Wamba and make a bus connection to Nairobi. I was so weak and exhausted.
“That’s when I drank the goat milk mixed with cow blood. It tastes like you’re drinking iron. It really revived me and made me feel like an African warrior.”
Welsh’s obsession with female circumcision developed after reading Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, a book detailing the ceremonious genital mutilation of a young female in Africa.
“In Nairobi, I lived in a run-down apartment with five other American girls, and did a lot of political work for the paper there prior to the elections. I also worked on some prostitution and AIDS stories and wrote a few other stories. I’m not much of a writer, though.”
Her circumcision photos were done on her own time.
“It’s a touchy subject in Africa, and the Nairobi editors weren’t interested,” Welsh said. “I did a story on the traditional ceremony, though. They watered it down and printed a couple of my pictures that hardly showed anything.”
She returned to the U.S. and Syracuse University last summer, finished her studies, graduated with honors last December and in January joined the Palm Beach Post as a photography intern. Three months later, the Pulitzer awards were announced, making her the youngest of the 14 journalism honorees.
Part of her $3,000 Pulitzer Prize money, she said, will be donated to one of the major groups, striving to educate the public about the dangers of female genital mutilation and effectively outlawing it.
“It was not something I wanted to make money with,” she said. “I’m still young and idealistic, I guess.”
Despite growing condemnation of genital mutilation as abusive to women, it remains a widely practiced rite of passage aimed at ensuring chastity and purity.
The U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals, June 13, concluded that genital mutilation is a form of female persecution and granted a 19-year-old West African woman political asylum. The woman convinced the board she would be forced to undergo the crude and dangerous practice by members of her tribe if she were forced to return to Togo.
According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 80 million women worldwide have been forced to undergo genital mutilation.
Welsh has written to Seita, enclosing $5 and $10 at different times, but doubts the teenager received the money because of rampant thievery and corruption in the country.
With the recognition and Pulitzer Prize came “quite a few” job offers, Welsh said. “For a while I considered going with a larger paper, but decided to stay with the Post. They have an incredibly talented group of photographers.”
Pete Cross, 40, director of the Post’s 15-member photography staff who hired Welsh, describes her as “great, a true professional, committed, hard working. She comes up with great ideas. Recently, while working on a layout of a struggling, very young dancer in a troubled family, she literally moved in with the family. A lot of work is done on her own time.”
The Post granted Welsh a three-month leave of absence this summer to pursue an assignment in Kenya for the Newhouse New Service. She left on June 26 with reporter Delia Rios to work on a story about young Kenyan female street urchins who support themselves by prostitution. It was an idea Welsh had come up with in her intitial trip to Nairobi.
According to Deborah Howell, Newhouse News Service’s Washington bureau chief, Welse felt the situation for the street children had grown more dangerous in the year she had been gone.
“She and Rio both felt the danger the entire time they were reporting the story,” Howell said. “Roving gangs of street toughs made it obvious they wanted Welsh’s cameras and the boots Welsh and Rio were wearing. Several times Rios and Welsh had to leave the area. Once they found refuge in a church with their translator.”
The story and photos were distributed for Newhouse News Service via Universal Press Syndicate.
?(“We had to walk 15 or more miles in 100-degree heat on dirt roads to reach the town of Wamba and make a bus connection to Nairobi. I was so weak and exhausted. That’s when Idrank the goat milk mixed with cow blood. It tastes like you’re drinking iron. It really revived me and made me feel like an African warrior.”) [Caption]
?(-Pulitzer Prize winner Spephanie Welsh) [Photo & Caption]

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