“It's about the empowerment of rural African women, as much as it's about conservation," says Brent Stirton, about his nominated image of Petronella Chigumbura, a member of an all-female anti-poaching unit in Zimbabwe
Petronella Chigumbura is a member of Akashinga, an all-female anti-poaching unit that operates in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi. In Shona – the native language of Zimbabwe – Akashinga means the brave ones. Many of the members have survived sexual violence and domestic abuse but, recruited by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), they train rigorously to fight trophy hunting.
“Whether it’s fighting fires, working in the military, or in corporate sectors, I think we are all aware that groups of women who are enabled and working together can be powerful,” says Brent Stirton, nominee for this year’s World Press Photo of the Year.
Stirton has received nine awards from World Press Photo, along with countless more from organisations such as The Pictures of the Year International contest, Lucies, and London Association of Photographers. The Natural History Museum in London has named him Wildlife Photographer of the Year three years running, with his work on conservation and the environment recognised by the UN and published internationally.
Stirton began covering conservation in 2007, while he was reporting on the clash between paramilitaries in Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time 17 paramilitary groups were operating in the park, as well as rebel troops and the Congolese army. But despite the scale of the conflict, Stirton found that his photographs weren’t gaining much media attention. Three days in, news spread that seven endangered mountain gorillas had been shot. Stirton’s photograph of a dead gorilla being carried to its burial by park rangers gathered a larger response than anything he had shot on the conflict.
“That was an epiphany for me, in terms of seeing the fact that the environment and these conflicts don’t happen in isolation,” says Stirton. “There is a strong record of rebel groups and other nefarious characters hiding out in wild spaces around the world. So I started looking at that and what the impacts were.”
Stirton became aware of Akashinga through IAPF, who he was working with when he shot his 2017 WPP award-winning image of a rhino poached for its horn. Akashinga was formed that same year, when the IAPF were approached to assist with conservation in Zimbabwe. Its founder, Damien Mander, found that the frontline in conservation was always led by men, and inspired by the Black Mambas – the world’s first female anti-poaching unit in South Africa – decided to recruit women for a separate force.
Modelled on special forces training, 36 women from marginalised backgrounds were recruited and trained to restore and manage a reserve that was historically used for elephant trophy hunting. The results exceeded his expectations. “He found that the women were more disciplined. They didn’t get drunk, and they weren’t corrupt. It quickly emerged that these women were tough, competent, and intelligent,” says Stirton.
Petronella – the woman in Stirton’s nominated image – completed her training with the former Selous Scouts, a special forces regiment of the ex-Rhodesian Army. “The guys that trained Petronella said she would have made it into their selection, she’s that good.”
Stirton points out that he was wary at first, because of other organisations that may use all-women groups as a fundraising mechanism. “It was important for me to be looking at something that was the real thing,” he says. “The women here are every bit equal to the men. There is no tokenism going on there.”
The image is nominated in the environment single images category of the awards, but it was pulled out by the jury from a larger photo essay he submitted. “I must be honest, I was very surprised. It’s not a typical picture, but I think you could say the same thing about a number of the images this year,” he says. “It’s a female empowerment image.
“That’s where Akashinga came from,” he adds. “It’s about the empowerment of rural African women, as much as it’s about conservation.”