Motherhood consists of a series of photographs of mothers and their children from around the world. The exhibit is displayed in Washington, as part of the Safe Motherhood Initiative, a call by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and other advocates for the countries of the Americas to redouble their efforts to reduce maternal mortality and achieve universal access to reproductive health by the year 2015. The Motherhood exhibit is sponsored by the International Cooperation Program Obra Social “la Caixa”.
Born on the road
November 1996. Again, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees are on the move. The same ones that left the country after the genocide in 1994 are now returning, prodded by the Tutsi army, which has attacked the refugee camps to put an end to the threat of the old armed forces, which continue to train in the camps. Nearly one million people died during the genocide. Thousands of people died afterwards in refugee camps during the cholera epidemic in Goma. This child who is traveling on his mother’s back has never known a home. His mother gave birth to him on the side of a road during one of the numerous upheavals, fleeing from something. He has neither a home nor a country. But it seems that he feels right at home bound to his mother.
The brother’s cradle, Iran
On St. Stephen’s Day [December 26] in 2003, a powerful earthquake destroyed the historic city of Bam, Iran. Almost half the city’s 90,000 residents perished, buried beneath their houses. Survivors recall that the earth shook twice in the morning and, at the third tremor, the walls crumbled as if they were made of paper. Every Thursday, the survivors visit the great cemetery beyond the palm trees that shade the city and remember the dead with offerings of food. Iranians believe that sharing food with the dead is a way of being reunited with them. These encounters in the cemetery are very moving and heartbreaking. A young woman explained to me that she had taken her baby to the cemetery so she could meet her brother, who died as he slept in his cradle. The mother and the husband were saved, and a year later they purchased a new cradle for the girl in the photo who, having just been born, was visiting her dead brother.
Kiss me, Senegal
In the maternity ward in Kédougou, a young mother plays with her newborn daughter, oblivious to the people around her. She kisses the baby’s lips with hers and then pulls him to her breast to feed him. The mother is alone, without anyone from her family to accompany her. She is the second wife of a man twice her age. In Senegal, 20% of children are underweight, and only 11% of women have access to primary school. Life expectancy is 56 years. Girls become mothers very early, without being able to experience their youth. Perhaps the sensual and beautiful kiss of this girl-mother is the kiss of lost games with dolls—although when I released the shutter, it seemed like it was a woman kissing me.
At the doctor’s office, Guatemala
I met Madelaine and her daughter Mariene at a hospital in Guatemala City. They were in the waiting room of the infectious diseases section. When the doctor called the mother in, the girl remained in the arms of a nurse. Mother and daughter have AIDS and have begun combination drug therapy. They take almost 15 pills a day. I accompanied the mother while the doctor saw her and took her temperature. Madelaine has been on the verge of death, and now it seems that she is beginning to recover, although she weighs 20 kilos less than her normal weight. Her image is that of a person who is wasting away, worn down by the pain. I captured this look, full of life, when she left the physician’s office and joined her daughter.
The untouchables, India
State of Andhra Pradesh, 1998. The untouchables caste is the lowest rung on the ladder of Indian society. In the towns—as with the Gypsies in many European countries—they tend to live apart, in the least healthy areas, at the entrance to the town, underneath bridges. In one of the shantytowns that had no running water or latrines, and was infested with black-haired pigs that rooted around in the refuse where the children played, I found this young, beautiful mother with her child.
Toni’s bottle, Spain
Suzanne, a former drug addict with AIDS, wanted to conceive Toni with José one night when they slept under a blanket in one of Barcelona’s parks. Both had had very difficult lives. Homeless. Jobless. Drugs. Prison. When they met, life held no value for them, but love gave them hope. Toni was their declaration of love. They thought their child would help them have a normal family life. But things don’t always go the way you want it to. José has already died. Things have not worked out for Suzanne nor her daughter Sheila, who is now with her. One day I went with Sheila and Suzanne to visit to the newborn Toni, and I took this picture. It is one of my favorites because in Suzanne’s pained expression there is a beauty and a joy that only she knows and no one can ever take from her.
The district of Moradabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, is one of the most isolated areas of India, where to this day there are still some cases of polio. I was able to visit some Muslim villages during the vaccination campaign of 2002. People were afraid of us. They had heard something about a world war against Islam and feared that the vaccine was a weapon to sterilize and even exterminate them. The women did not want to be photographed, but there was one who followed me and stayed by me at all times. She wanted me to go to her house to photograph her son. When I took out the camera, she decided to pose as well, although she did so without uncovering her face.
A stray bullet, Brazil
Luciana has lain in a Rio de Janeiro hospital bed since the day a stray bullet passed through her neck. Luciana was quietly eating a sandwich on the grounds of the university. Some gunmen began to shoot at the police, who shot back in pursuit. One of those bullets wounded Luciana. At first she could not even speak. In order to say “yes,” she blinked once; twice meant “no.” Then, little by little, she recovered the voice that, she says, now sounds like Donald Duck’s. Luciana eats through a tube that goes directly to her stomach and cannot feel her arms or legs. Her mother takes care of her and never leaves her side.
Milicias’s empty room, Serbia
The night of April 17, 1999, NATO bombed the city of Belgrade. Dusica and her husband were talking in the dark in the dining room of their house after putting their 3-year-old daughter Milicia to bed. The little girl got up, went into the bathroom, and sat on the toilet. Then a NATO fragmentation bomb came through the window and killed her in the act. Alexandra was born a year later. Her grandmother Lena had wanted her birth to coincide with the April 17 date, but Alexandra came four days late. She now occupies Milicia’s empty room, and Dusica, her mother, has stopped taking antidepressants.
Angola. Refugee camp in Kuito. She was sitting on the ground, shielding herself from the morning sun in the shadow thrown across the reddish sand by her house fashioned of plastic and reeds. She and her baby. Playing. Smothering each other with kisses. Completely oblivious to the scene of hungry people wandering around amid the thick smoke of the campfires, where soup made of grass was being cooked in bowls made of tin cans. I took out my camera and focused on the scene. I thought: no matter how bad things get, you can always find within yourself a sliver of beauty to hold on to. I released the shutter. And that young mother, almost a girl, was the first photo of this series called Motherhood, which has helped me to see that, even in the worst of circumstances, there is always something that escapes us and moves us with its beauty.
Behind bars, Spain
I met Neus in the Wad-Ras prison in Barcelona. That is where her daughter, who is seven months old in the photo, was born. In the morning the girl would go to the day-care center inside the penitentiary; in the afternoon Neus and her daughter would play in the cell or stroll through the yard where, during the summer, there is a small plastic swimming pool to splash around in. Sitting on the windowsill, her gaze lost in the square of sky visible through the bars, Neus told me about her secret dream. It was the house that she wanted for her daughter and herself: with a kitchen, a television, a round bathtub, and a room that she has turned into a hairdresser’s salon, with dyes, hair dryer, hairpieces, rollers. The room is always full of friends. Neus does her friends’ hair and make-up, washes their hair, or suggests a color change, while her daughter plays happily amid the laughter. This is Neus’s dream, and she has already spent seven years in prison.
In the Anguila market, Guatemala
Every morning, hundreds of indigenous farmers take their goods to the market in Antigua, Guatemala, transporting enormous bundles of handicrafts, textiles, vegetables, and fruits. They have risen early and have caught the giant long-distance buses able to drive through the rough mountain roads. Together with their goods, the women usually carry young children, who sleep or play by their side while they try to sell their wares. I captured the image of this woman sitting on the ground next to the central bus station.
Fistula Pilgrim, Ethiopia
I met Avebushe in an Ethiopian hospital where she had been treated so that she could have a baby. One day, her father decided to marry her off. She was perhaps not even 12 yet. She soon got pregnant, but during the birth she could not get the baby out. Later, she managed to expel the dead body of her child, but while the baby was fighting to be born she developed an infection, a fistula, a perforation of the vaginal wall and rectum.
Avebushe had surgery after the first baby, who died. Look how beautiful she is with her newborn. He’s a very beautiful child, and she looks very pleased.
Poverty in a land of oil, Chad
Marcel is a laborer from southern Chad, a modest man who lives off the land and a few farm animals. But the land is no longer productive, and the water is polluted. Oil has been discovered under the ground where Marcel walks. We went for a walk with him and came across one of his neighbors, who was on her way back from the market. Here you have her: running over the red earth with her baby strapped to her back, the wide bowl on her head, a washbasin in her hand, very beautiful in her colorful clothes and as poor as always in a country where oil has done nothing more than make the lives of poor people harder and corrupt the powerful.
I met Satta in a displaced persons camp in Liberia. In her arms she was carrying her newborn twins. “What are their names?” I asked her. And Satta explained to me that they had not yet been named, because according to tradition you must wait until they are seven days old. This reminded me that during the great famine of Somalia in 1992, mothers did not name their children until they were a year old. They knew that many of them were not going to survive, so the children did not have names until they turned one. Just in case.
Satta has two more children but has lost her husband and her parents. The soldiers killed them the day they attacked her village and shot at everyone. Satta managed to hide in the jungle. She says that before the war her life was peaceful. She had a large house with many rooms. Her husband made palm oil, and she would put it in yellow containers and sell it in the market. She does not know what has become of the house. She does not know what will become of her life. She does not know why they attacked and killed her loved ones.
In the early 1990s a terrible famine ravaged Somalia, precisely when the country was on the brink of chaos due to a civil war among the different clans. During the summer of 1992, in the city of Baidoa alone, hunger killed 70% of the children under 5 and 40% of the adult population. The majority of the nomads lost their herds of camels and had to seek refuge in camps, where they were fed by international organizations.
This pregnant woman has abandoned her nomadic life and built her manyata, a traditional hut usually transported on a camel’s back, on a piece of open ground at the entrance to Mogadishu, hoping to find in the city what the desert can no longer offer her. When I was looking at the woman, I noticed that the curve of the manyata and that of her pregnancy were the same. I thought about how, for all of us, our first home is our mother’s belly, and that a house that looks like a pregnancy is the prettiest house in the world.