It was 2001 when photographer Mark Tuschman found himself on an assignment in a women’s shelter in Mongolia. What he saw there permanently altered the course of his photography and his life. The shelter, built as a refuge for victims of domestic abuse, was at maximum capacity. The demand was so high that women were only able to stay for a week or so before returning to the violent situations that had driven them there. “They told me one particularly harrowing story that’s been seared into my memory,” said Tuschman in a phone interview with Women in the World. “They were trying to prosecute this man who had literally starved his wife to death and watched her die. I mean, I think about that and it’s still just unbelievable.” Tuschman said that the experience opened his eyes to the harsh realities facing women and girls across the globe. “I realized there were so many tens of millions of women and girls suffering in silence, and I wanted to bring a voice to these women and girls.”
Fifteen years, and trips to seventeen countries later, Tuschman has published an enormous, powerful photobook, Faces of Courage. The book contains intimate portraits of women around the globe, and the challenges that women and girls face in maintaining control over their lives, and their bodies. Tuschman explores healthcare issues like obstetric fistulas and HIV/AIDS affecting women in developing countries. In India, we meet Nazia, a young bride and victim of dowry abuse whose husband pushed her off his motorcycle while she was seven months pregnant with their child. In Indonesia, we meet Seni, a human trafficking victim who was held for three years as an indentured servant.
But despite the heartbreaking stories that Tuschman shares with us, his photographs also convey the incredible courage and determination of his subjects. “I’m most hopeful when I’m in a classroom of young empowered girls, seeing how much energy they have to learn, their focus, their eagerness, and their attention,” said Tuschman.
Celebrated in the book are the NGOs and individual women working tirelessly to combat gender inequality, empower women, and keep women and girls safe. In one chapter, we meet Judy Frater, an anthropologist who’s established a design school in Gujarat, India where she’s training young women in trades that will lead them to economic empowerment. In another, we meet a group of women in Ghana taking out micro-finance loans to better their families and find financial independence. “They’re so capable. I saw women who were taking care of their families, taking loans out, and really making something for themselves,” Tuschman said. “I think what was important, even more than the money to them, was that they had a sense of hope. It made a really big difference.”
In tackling such a wide range of stories from around the globe, Tuschman said he set his focus on the lives of the individual women he met, rather than generalizing the issues affecting them. “I think people can relate to individuals better than masses of people,” said Tuschman. “There was that recent famous photo of a Syrian refugee boy being carried onto the beach that resonated, even though there were tons of other photos of refugees in boats. People may not know what to do when they’re overwhelmed, but focusing on one person’s story can motivate people to become more involved.”
Though the book spotlights the brave efforts of many individuals and NGOs working to combat gender inequality, Tuschman acknowledged that there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done. The challenges facing the women in Faces of Courage have been, and will continue to threaten the lives of millions of women in the future. “It’s a long epic battle,” acknowledged Tuschman. “People have told me my book is very timely, and I always tell them that unfortunately I think this book will be timely for years to come.”
After years bearing witness to the harsh realities in the lives of women and girls, the most egregious conditions Tuschman saw were in countries that all had one thing in common: a strict adherence to religious rules, laws, and codes. “It turns out that the countries where women are treated the worst are usually the most religious countries in the world,” said Tuschman. “It becomes a way to keep women disempowered, control women, and control their bodies. It’s definitely had an emotional toll on me, to see the way so many women are treated. It makes me very angry.”
Already, Faces of Courage has made an impact on viewers. American Photo Magazine has recently named it among the best photobooks of 2015. Tuschman said his hope is to reach a new generation of activists. “One of the things I try to do in my photography is to get the viewer to feel a sense of compassion and empathy for the people I’m photographing,” he said.
To learn more about the book, visit Mark Tuschman’s website.