When Makima's neighbor in Kolkata, India, proposed to her, she turned him down. Instead of accepting the rejection and moving on, the suitor's mother went to Makima's house one night and poured acid on her face. Acid is often used to attack women who transgress some imaginary line, from spurning romantic advances to wearing a veil too loosely. The damage can be devastating. In/Visible, a series of photos by German artist Ann-Christine Woehrl, is an attempt to help bring more attention to acid violence and women like Makima who are victimized by it every year.
The survivors of acid and burn attacks — who are overwhelmingly female — must confront more than just a changed face in the mirror. They are often ostracized from their communities and families, and unable to continue working at their old jobs. In countries where attacks are more common, such as India and Bangladesh, advocates have had to fight to even get these attacks classified as a specific crime, and to make it harder for perpetrators to find and buy acid.
Jaf Shah, the executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, told us in an email that although as many as 1,500 attacks are recorded each year, "the real figure is likely to be far higher. There could be as many as 1,000 attacks a year in India alone, but many attacks go unreported. Survivors of acid attacks live in fear of reprisals for reporting the attack. They also know that their chances of achieving a prosecution are tiny."
After attacks that can literally render women faceless, the survivors have to fight to be seen and appreciated. "The fact that I was giving them my ear and listening to what they had to say, looking at them and acknowledging them, I think that probably was essential for them and made them open up," said Woehrl. During the three years she worked on the project, Woehrl traveled to six countries and met dozens of women. Though some of them women were injured in accidents or hurt themselves, all of her subjects shared stories of domestic violence and resilience.
Just providing a sympathetic audience for the women she was working with helped build a rapport with them. "That’s really lacking when you are stigmatized; people just tend to not look and not listen anymore to what you have to say," Woehrl said. But there are activists who are trying to change things. Groups like Acid Survivors Trust International help women get medical care for their injuries, find work, and advocate for better laws; in Bangladesh, the number of acid attacks has dropped dramatically, from nearly 500 in 2002 to less than 100 in 2011.
One thing that Woehrl often hears from her subjects is that despite the trauma these women went through, it has opened up unexpected opportunities to grow as people. "I think of the emotional support you probably need to get the first step to move forward and to accept yourself and say, 'Okay, that’s the new me.' A lot of women told me that they appreciated more the person they were now than before," she said. "For them, it was almost a chance to get them to know themselves on a much deeper level, and to get their inner resources awakened."
Take a look at some of Woehrl's powerful photos of these resilient women from around the world.
ASTI is a leading organization working to combat acid violence and support survivors in their recovery. For more on how you can help, see their website.