The Long Fight: Mariella Furrer on Her 10-Year Project About Sexual Abuse in South Africa

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Mariella Furrer
Classmates at the funeral of Sheldean Human in Pretoria, South Africa, in 2007. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

To say that Mariella Furrer spent the last decade on a mission is an understatement. The term “crusade” is probably more accurate. During that period, the Lebanon-born, Africa-raised photographer and social activist has dedicated herself to documenting child sexual abuse in South Africa with the zeal of a new convert. Her book, My Piece of Sky, is a powerful testament to that struggle and to the enormity of the problem not only in South Africa but across the globe.  

Her personal and professional odyssey began with an assignment from U.S. women’s magazine Marie Claire. They wanted a piece about infant rape in South Africa and, although Furrer was living in Kenya at the time, she took the assignment. She flew in and spent three days working with the Child Protection unit in a small town only to leave shocked at the number of victims who had come to the police station in that short time. When she left, officers advised her to try to work with the police in Johannesburg because she could get more material in a bigger city. “I really started out wanting to do a photo essay, but the more I researched, the more I got drawn into it. And here we are 11 years later,” Furrer says.

That initial assignment foreshadowed some of the challenges she would face with the project over the next decade. Despite her explicit instructions to the contrary, Furrer claims that Marie Claire chose to use some of her images without obscuring the young victims’ faces. Enraged at the breach of trust, she says she tried to fight them through her agents at Corbis but to no avail. As she sees it, Corbis was more interested in protecting its business with the magazine than it was in the rights of abused African children. She left the agency and didn’t look back. Going it alone would be a recurring theme.

“I’ve never thought the photos were very strong,” Furrer says ruefully. “I couldn’t show faces, and faces are where the emotions are held. [Also] not being able to move around and try [different] angles was one of the more difficult things … because these children have just been sexually abused and there is so much shame, guilt and trauma attached to it, somehow having a camera put in your face is almost like pointing a finger.” She took great pains to be unobtrusive during police interviews with the children, sitting on the floor, moving as little as possible, and always asking permission from child and guardian before taking any photographs. Working with a small Leica—what she describes as “something like an Instamatic”—being discreet took priority over artistic sensibilities.

At over 600 pages, My Piece of Sky is—in the context of contemporary photo books—a tome. But its length is less surprising than that the book was finished at all. Though she was “with a great publisher,” eventually it became clear that if Furrer was going to insist on creating an “encyclopedia of child sexual abuse” on her own terms, she would have to do it independently. She left her publisher and set up a Kickstarter campaign for funding, raising (with other independent donations) approximately $57,000 for the design and printing of the book.

From the introduction, Furrer makes it clear that child sexual abuse is not merely a compelling social issue for her. “When I was about 5 years old, I was sexually abused by a stranger,” she writes. “[As] a 5-year-old, I don’t think you really understand that you have lost something when you are abused. Yet you … lose your childhood really, your innocence is snatched away, and what little is left of that once-pure child is now transformed into a sexual being, a child with a knowledge of things way before her time.”

In a book heavy with chilling testimony and disturbing images, Furrer’s interviews with confessed pedophiles are some of the work’s grimmest. But they are also enlightening; illustrating not just the “banality of evil,” but also daring to humanize (without sympathizing) these perpetrators and provide insight into how and why the abused often become the abusers. The interviews took place at a sex offender group-therapy program that the photographer attended for six to eight weeks. It was one of the most challenging aspects of her journey. “They could be quite manipulative,” Furrer says, “but each and every one of these people had come from such abusive homes, not sexually abusive [always] but physically and emotionally … they are not born pedophiles. They are created.”

Editing the work was no less of a challenge, but Furrer leaned on the considerable talents of friends and colleagues, like filmmaker Jacques Menasche and photographer and publisher Gary Knight. Menasche’s task was particularly thorny: trimming 100,000 words from Furrer’s epic manuscript.

Everything in life comes with a price. The author has paid dearly for every indelible page in this incredible, horrifying, exhausting book. She freely admits being driven “to the brink of insanity” and being urged to stop her research by psychologists and social workers concerned for her health. But by that point “stopping” was not an option for Furrer. She had already invested too much of her time, money and emotional capital in the project to turn back.

“I have been on an antidepressant for eight years,” Furrer says in her matter-of-fact way. “I recently tried to come off of it but I am in full post-traumatic stress disorder again. I’m having to take a thousand medications just to keep going for the book launch.”

Newly diagnosed with “burnout” on top of the omnipresent PTSD, Furrer says her cortisol—stress hormone—levels are maxed out, debilitating her concentration and memory.
Like a distance runner who has just passed the finish line, she seems equal parts exhausted and proud, but there is no doubt in her mind that her particular race is over. Furrer promises that this will be her first and last book.

Related Article:

Mariella Furrer Photo Gallery

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