A Visual Storyteller with a Social Mission



Mon, 18 Jun 2018 - 09:00 GMT


Mon, 18 Jun 2018 - 09:00 GMT

The Egyptian photographer and story teller Heba Khamis along with Cameroonians - Heba Khamis Facebok.

The Egyptian photographer and story teller Heba Khamis along with Cameroonians - Heba Khamis Facebok.

CAIRO - 15 June - 2018: An Alexandrian who uses her lens to shed light on social issues and tell visual stories, Heba Khamis, 29, has snatched the first prize at the World Press Photo’s contemporary issues contest last month, competing with 4,548 other photographers.

Khamis’ winning work sheds light on a devastating practice that is common in Cameroon; breast ironing. Suzanne,11, from East Cameroon, had her breasts ironed with a hot stone twice a day until her they flattened. Marianne, 13, also had her breasts flattened, using a stick and wooden bowl.

In an effort to document the traditional Cameroonian practice, performed as an act of love and perceived as a cruel crime, Khamis’s “Banned Beauty” project takes us behind the scenes of a painful reality. A visual storyteller and researcher, as she introduces herself, Khamis is always looking for the story behind a social issue that might be ignored or marginalised in a society.

In an interview with Egypt Today, Khamis talks about her latest project and her social mission as a visual story teller in Africa. “As I go deeper and deeper in my career, I realise that what I am doing is not photography, it is more of documenting life stories and phenomena, narrating them in the form of photos rather than words,” Khamis says.

Banned Beauty: The love behind the crime

A long-time tradition in Cameroon, breast ironing - massaging or compressing adolescent girls’ breasts to melt the fats – is practiced by the mothers or female relatives as a way to delay the girls’ maturity. It follows a strong, ancient belief that this practice will combat rapes or any other form of sexual practices against girls. In some regions, they bundle girls’ breasts with a belt; others flame a stone, spatula or maul and use it to compress or massage the breasts.

The “Banned Beauty” project presents 10 photos documenting the phenomenon. The first shows Veronica, 28, massaging the breasts of her daughter Michelle, 10, while her other children are watching. Others portray young girls who have had their breasts flattened or are still in the process. The project also shows some of the tools used in the practice, like a heated stone or a stick, leaving us to imagine the torture these young girls go through to combat puberty.

“My first priority is not to follow the right photography techniques and rules; my real priority is to take photos that stir sentiments inside anyone who sees them,” Khamis says, as she admits she cares about the photos’ subject more than the photos themselves.

The ambitious photographer adds that she made the decision to include children’s photos, although it might be violating photography rules, to make the project as expressive as it can get. But Khamis went beyond documenting the practice as the atrocity girls are subjected too, and went on to explore the reasons behind it from the perspective of old Cameroonian ladies. “This phenomenon is tailored to protect those girls, a kind of protection that comes from severe pain and abuse; this contrast attracted me to record this phenomenon,” Khamis says. The ladies told Khamis that they iron their girls’ breasts because they love them and want to protect them from being raped or getting pregnant and missing out on education or work.

“African NGOs recounted that almost 25 percent of Cameroonian women were subjected to some form of breast ironing; in some regions, the percentage rises to more than 50 percent,” Khamis says. Although breast ironing is originally a Cameroonian tradition, it occurs in some other African countries in West and Central Africa. According to The United Nations Population Fund, breast ironing leads to a lot of health problems, such as tissue damage and several kinds of infection as well as negatively affecting the girls’ psychological and physical health.

The journey of a female photojournalist

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A photographer at heart since she was 8 years old, Khamis bought her first camera when she was in high school, with her own savings; and made her own photofilm while on a school trip. “I was loaded with joy and excitement while shooting this film, because at that time I was keen to immortalise these precious memories because I knew I will never get them back; photos have the ability to document special experiences and moments, keeping them alive forever,” Khamis says. A committed artist, Khamis joined the Faculty of Arts; and she resumed her passion for photography soon after.

“I attended my first photography workshop in my third year of college; it was for free. One year later, my family bought me my first DSLR camera,” Khamis says. “I started roaming the streets, and recording the interesting details about people’s lives,” she recalls, adding that she would spend all of her allowance on photography workshops. After graduating with a bachelor in painting, she decided to shift her career and work as a photojournalist. Back in 2012, the Egyptian community was not yet used to the idea of a female photojournalist.

Khamis recalls how her manager and colleagues always told her not to cover demonstrations or clashes, “because she is a girl.” “I was always keen to prove to them that I am able to work in all critical situations and under all tough circumstances,” she says, adding that women in a conservative society like the Egyptian one consume both time and effort to prove that they can execute hard, front-line tasks easily and efficiently.

“Because fighting for what we believe is right and getting a sense of self accomplishment are not convincing excuses for women in closed societies to take unusual jobs,” Khamis says. The young photographer kept on moving from one newspaper to the other, working 10 to 16 hours a day, and accepting low salaries. “I accepted...to learn more, enhance my experience and prove that I perform all the duties of any professional photojournalist, regardless of how tough they are,” Khamis says. She then started freelancing with prominent international news agencies such as the Associated Press (AP), European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) and Xinhuanet.

“I documented with my photos the January 25 revolution and June 30 revolution,” Khamis says. To complement her talent and skills with professional knowledge, she received a diploma in photojournalism from the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 2016 and took another diploma in photojournalism from Hochschule Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts in 2017. She also participated in the 2017 World Press Photo Foundation’s Joop Swart Master class, and received PHmuseum’s Women Photographers Grant.

A visual storyteller with a social mission

After 2016, a volunteer work in Uganda changed the rising photographer’s path from covering news to documentary photography. Today, she is practicing her job with a much higher social and humanitarian mission at heart. Khamis currently still volunteers in Uganda, teaches photography in Egypt, and provides charity organizations with photography services.

"The high exposure to people and their lives’ details in my job provides me with huge experience,” Khamis says. “I am a photographer, researcher, writer and a salesperson.” Khamis is currently focusing on refugees and gay prostitution in Germany, in addition to transgender identities in Egypt. “I cover all the expenses of my own projects then start to search for a place that will pay for the project and publish it; finding the proper place is not by all means an easy task,” she says.

She advises anyone who wants to become a professional story teller to first listen to their own inner voice and understand their own story before listening to others’. “We must know first where we stand, and what our motivations, goals and challenges are because understanding others starts with understanding ourselves,” Khamis explains.



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