Image © Becky Matthews and Clare Struthers, for International Aid Trust
Becky Matthews and Clare Struthers found both gravity and joy at the mass wedding of six couples in a Northern Ugandan refugee camp
Author: Rob Hastings
24 Feb 2010 Tags: Wedding
The Acholi people of northern Uganda have suffered unimaginable hardship over the past 20 years. Forced off their land and out of their homes by a rebel insurgency that has inflicted murder, mutilation, mass abduction and sexual enslavement upon them, some one million now live in primitive Internally Displaced Persons camps. Relying on international aid just for survival, they have little cause for celebration.
But in January 2009 a very special event did take place in the Pader IDP camp – the mass wedding of six couples. They got hitched in full wedding regalia with the help of UK charity worker Carol Downing, who runs the Chorley-based NGO Jireh Women, a Christian organisation that aims to help impoverished women around the world. She sourced 54 second-hand brides’ and bridesmaids’ dresses, giving the recipients a much-needed ray of light and providing them with sustainable income for the future through wedding dress hire.
British photojournalists Becky Matthews and Clare Struthers heard of the wedding plans while working for International Aid Trust, and decided they had to cover it. They got permission straight away, but fine-tuning the details took a little longer. ‘It was on and off for months,’ says Matthews. ‘Even when the date was confirmed we couldn’t be sure it would go ahead, and we only had two weeks to get to London to get our visas and get our flights booked, and find the money to go. But we had to risk it.’
The pair eventually got to the capital, Kampala, before making their way to Pader in the north of the country by bus and 4x4. They spent a week in the camp before the wedding, to allow them to get to know their hosts. ‘We stayed in a mud hut with just a mattress and a mosquito net, but they made us feel very welcome,’ says Matthews.
On the day itself, they found they had to rely on instinct rather than planning, because it was a very busy day. ‘It was very frantic,’ says Matthews. ‘We had some ideas for portrait shots but it was hard with the language barrier, and you can’t boss people about on their wedding day.’
She and Struthers also had to make do with just one Nikon DSLR each and a small selection of lenses and accessories. ‘We had to go very light because we couldn’t carry everything with us,’ Matthews explains. ‘We didn’t have any back-ups, so we were a bit worried.’ Fortunately their equipment didn’t let them down – especially their flashguns, which proved to be particularly important because the concrete hall had no electric lighting.
They took both documentary and more formal, posed wedding shots, but in many of the images their subjects look unusually solemn. This was due to the people’s customs and recent experiences rather than a lack of joy, says Matthews. ‘They said they’re a proud people, and in photographs they want to look proud rather than happy. They took the whole event very seriously, they’re a very religious people. You also have to remember what they’ve been through. The women we spoke to had lost most of their family members, some had been shot, some had been raped or attacked. You could see the scars.’
But, for all that, Struthers says the celebrations after the vows provided a ‘clear juxtaposition’ and a joyous outpouring of emotion. ‘They felt blessed they were able to do this,’ she says. ‘They were singing and dancing and praising the lord – just having
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