When Lori Hawkins arrives on assignment, she usually has a clear picture of what she will see — without even lifting her camera.
This past March, her 10-day trip to Kenya was no different, though only at first. She knew it would be tough — documenting the women of West Pekot and their struggle to survive childbirth — but her photojournalism practice had mentally prepared her.
For years, she had dropped herself at the intersection of human rights issues in post-conflict development, focusing specifically on the empowerment of women in marginalized societies. She covered the aftermath of the South Asia earthquake and acid throwing in Pakistan. She reported on the refugees in Lesbos, Greece, and those fleeing crime and violence in Honduras. She was on the ground for the presidential election protests in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.
After recently capturing the ongoing transition to democracy in Liberia, following the civil war and Ebola epidemic, Hawkins found herself in Kenya working closely with Saving Mothers, a not-for-profit battling high rates of maternal deaths during childbirth — a departure from her life in New York, where a selection of the photos will be on view in “Too Far to Walk” starting Thursday, September 13, at Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Plaza.
“I was always interested in photography and capturing moments,” she said. “I built my pinhole camera at age 7 and walked around taking pictures of the neighbors, and I just thought it was the best thing in the world — the idea of capturing people in a moment. And I still feel that way.”
After a more traditional career trajectory, working for companies such as IBM and Kodak, Hawkins left it behind to pursue her passion as a photographer. Splitting her time between New York and Bridgehampton — where she has contributed to The Sag Harbor Express for the past four years — she aims to find the middle ground between news and documentary, she said, where the viewers can be informed, but also called into action.
With Saving Mothers, she experienced that same sensation herself, from behind the lens.
“The more research I did, the more I wanted to help them tell their story visually,” she said.
She had arrived on the ground early — several days before Saving Mothers — in order to go out into the field independently. She visited with mothers and survivors. She listened to stories of success and tragedy. And she understood why Kenya is considered the most dangerous place in the world to be pregnant.
It was a preview of what was to come, she said.
“What I ended up finding out was that the reason why it’s the most dangerous place to give birth — the primary reason, in my mind — is because of the female genital cutting, which is female circumcision,” she said. “It has since been banned, but it’s still practiced. Every single woman that came in and was examined had FGM.”
In Kenya, there are four levels of FGM — including clitoridectomy, which involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris, and infibulation, or the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal.
According to the World Health Organization, there are no health benefits to FGM, only harm. Immediate complications are often severe pain, excessive bleeding, fever and infections, and long-term consequences involve urinary, vaginal, menstrual and sexual problems, and increased risk of childbirth complications.
If the baby cannot pass through the birth canal because of the FGM scar tissue, it can often result in death by asphyxiation, Hawkins explained, or the mother hemorrhaging.
“In Kenya, if the baby dies, it’s a baby dying — the husband and wife will have more babies,” she said. “But when you lose the mother, you’re suddenly losing not only your wife, but the mother has multiple kids. It was a story of, ‘Okay, who is going to take care of these kids?’ That’s the story I was trying to tell through the photos: the people who are left behind.”
And she did, spending most of her days in the maternity ward and, sometimes, the morgue. It wasn’t until her last day on assignment that she found herself telling another story altogether. That morning, she had arrived at the maternity ward as she did every other day, and saw a newborn lying under the warmer.
“Oh, we have a baby this morning!” she had said.
The nurse quickly intercepted her, covering the baby with a blanket and, writing on tape, a name and date. She then put the bundle in the corner, next to two others on the floor.
Hawkins swallowed hard, choking back tears.
“I picked up my camera and was weeping in my heart as questions went through my mind,” she said. “‘Should I take photos? Ethically, was it right?’ I felt that the whole trip was wrapped around that one moment.”
As the shutter snapped, she couldn’t help but read the date and time. “Where was I at that moment?” she said she asked herself. “Could we have done anything to help?”
“It was that moment in time that I felt I had to share this story,” she said. “It was a split second where I had to share the humanity, share the feeling of, ‘This is what’s happening.’
“It was that moment where I felt called into action,” she continued. “I felt taking the photos would, hopefully, help others to be called into action and spread humanity. It was so difficult for me.”
While editing the show over the past few weeks, Hawkins said she knew she had to share the photo of the stillborns and newborn.
“The photo brings me to tears, remembering that moment,” she said, “but I’m hoping the photo emphasizes a shared humanity, a social responsibility too often neglected.”
“Too Far to Walk,” featuring photography by Lori Hawkins, will be on view from Thursday, September 13, through Sunday, September 23, at the seventh annual Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Plaza. For more information, visit photoville.com or lorihawkins.com.