Emma Clifton talks to He­len Man­son, a young Kiwi woman liv­ing in Uganda, whose job is to cap­ture on cam­era the hu­man face of a world in cri­sis.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - EDITOR'S LETTER -

The NZ mum in some of the world’s worst cri­sis zones

Af­ter eight years in the field, hu­man­i­tar­ian pho­tog­ra­pher He­len Man­son has learned how to com­part­men­talise her emo­tions when on the ground in for­mer war zones or refugee camps. But, inevitably, there’s al­ways a mo­ment or two that pierces her re­silience. Such as on a trip to pho­to­graph the un­fold­ing cri­sis in Congo, when four young un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren turned up – the old­est was 12, the youngest looked around six. They were dressed in match­ing T-shirts, He­len re­calls, and it re­ally hit home. “I just lost it, be­cause I some­times dress my kids in match­ing clothes and I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘Your mum ob­vi­ously loves you like I love my girls, and now you’ve lost your mummy and daddy, and what is life go­ing to look like for you here?”

Two 30-some­thing Ki­wis liv­ing in Uganda might sound a bit out of the or­di­nary, but for He­len and her hus­band Tim – who now have three chil­dren, Hope, four, Eva, two, and son Maz, one – it’s the life they al­ways wanted. Work­ing in Africa and adopt­ing chil­dren have been of great im­por­tance to the cou­ple since early on in their love story.

Tim was born in New Zealand but from age five to 15 he lived with his par­ents in the Ivory Coast, where they were do­ing mis­sion­ary work. And He­len – whose fam­ily also lived away from New Zealand for the same length of time – had wanted to adopt chil­dren of her own ever since she was a child. “So here we find our­selves, liv­ing in Uganda, hav­ing adopted two chil­dren,” she laughs. “Both of us got what we were look­ing for!”

See­ing the worst

On a Skype call from the fam­ily’s home in Kampala, with the video turned off to help en­sure a stronger connection, He­len, 33, sounds cheer­ful, funny – and a lit­tle tired, but as the mother of three small chil­dren, and up at 6am to make the time dif­fer­ence work for this chat, that’s un­der­stand­able. How­ever, don’t let the sunny de­meanour be­lie the re­al­ity that her work is very, very hard. She’s re­cently com­pleted an as­sign­ment to raise aware­ness of child slav­ery in Lake Volta in Ghana, and two weeks af­ter we speak, she’ll be head­ing to a refugee camp in Bangladesh to pho­to­graph peo­ple displaced by the Ro­hingya cri­sis – with more than one mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in a 10sq km set­tle­ment, it’s cur­rently the big­gest refugee camp in the world.

Her job re­quires be­ing in the thick of it all, see­ing the worst of what hu­mans can do to each other – gang rape, tor­ture, the killing of women and chil­dren – and try­ing to cap­ture it in a way out­siders can un­der­stand. “There are often tears just rolling down my face as I take photos and hear peo­ple’s sto­ries, be­cause it’s so aw­ful to have to see that stuff, but I know it’s a story that needs to be told,” she says. “I’m a hu­man, I’m a mum, I’m a daugh­ter, I’m a wife – I see these things like most Kiwi women would see them. I don’t have a heart of stone; in fact, the op­po­site – my heart is so soft!”

Be­fore Uganda, He­len had trained in fash­ion and mu­sic pub­lic re­la­tions, work­ing for high-pro­file firms in Auck­land and then later on in Dubai, where she and Tim lived for a year. But when the pair first moved to Uganda in 2014, there were two cru­cial mo­ments that sent He­len on her path to be­com­ing a full-time hu­man­i­tar­ian pho­tog­ra­pher. The first of these was meet­ing her Tear­fund spon­sor child in per­son, af­ter more than 10 years of do­nat­ing, and see­ing all her let­ters and photos kept in pride of place on the wall. The sec­ond, how­ever, was more com­pli­cated. While trav­el­ling on a bus one day, He­len sat next to a young boy and they started chat­ting.

“We shared an ap­ple, and he was just this lovely kid, so I ended up invit­ing him round for dinner, and we got to know him well. On about the third night of him com­ing round, he men­tioned how he used to be a child sol­dier. And all of a sud­den, all that stuff that I was too scared to read about or watch a movie about be­came real; flesh and blood, sit­ting in my kitchen, eat­ing the spaghetti I’d made.”

Want­ing to learn more, He­len started vol­un­teer­ing with Tear­fund, a New Zealand-based aid and de­vel­op­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion that works in Africa,

Asia and South Amer­ica. Af­ter a year, she be­came their com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager. But as her pho­tog­ra­phy work be­came more well-known, she was ap­proached by a va­ri­ety of or­gan­i­sa­tions and be­came a full-time hu­man­i­tar­ian pho­tog­ra­pher three years ago. She now works for the likes of World Vi­sion, In­ter­na­tional Jus­tice Mis­sion and Com­pas­sion, go­ing to some of the world’s most

“There are often tears rolling down my face as I take photos be­cause it’s so aw­ful.”

com­plex and poor ar­eas, to give a hu­man face to the crises oc­cur­ring there.

“When you sit down with some­body in their mud hut, and you hold their hand as they bawl their eyes out and tell you their story, or you walk into a med­i­cal clinic and you find a baby that’s been aban­doned, or you see a mum giv­ing birth on the floor of a makeshift tent… I’m often swear­ing un­der my breath, if I’m hon­est, be­cause it is so over­whelm­ing at times,” she says. “But my goal is al­ways to try and cap­ture the peo­ple I work with in the most dig­ni­fied way. I’m not look­ing to win any awards for these photos, I’m just look­ing to tell a truth­ful story that shows the in­cred­i­ble re­silience of peo­ple – and the beauty and pain amongst that.”

Over the years, He­len has been asked to pho­to­graph the full roll call of crimes against hu­man­ity; she was in Mo­sul, Iraq, last year, when it was still a very re­cent war zone – so re­cent, in fact, the lo­ca­tion He­len was in was bombed just seven hours af­ter she left. The Is­lamic State had just been forced out of the area and He­len re­calls the de­struc­tion left be­hind was pure, unadul­ter­ated hor­ror. “It com­pletely takes your breath away – I have photos from in­side the war zone and it’s just gra­tu­itous vi­o­lence; they didn’t just pop a bomb in­side a build­ing, they an­ni­hi­lated them. It’s not just five bullet holes in the side of a build­ing or house, it’s 500.”

Shoot­ing photos there for trauma care or­gan­i­sa­tion Tu­tapona and MedAir, He­len says it’s one of the few times she’s felt afraid while work­ing. “Usu­ally I don’t re­ally feel much fear go­ing into places, I just feel a great, prayer­ful sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion. I’m pray­ing to God, ‘Please let me see these peo­ple how you see them… please help me bring the story to life in a way that’s truth­ful and shows the work the not-for-profit is do­ing here.”

Both He­len and Tim are Chris­tian, and come from fam­i­lies that worked in ser­vice through the church. “My faith is a huge mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor for why I’m here, and I would even go as far as to say the rea­son I’m here is be­cause it’s so real to both of us. It’s what mo­ti­vates me to keep go­ing, to do this work, and the more I do it, the more my pas­sion is fu­elled to run even faster and harder and longer. I just feel like there’s so much go­ing on in our planet right now, this is no time to sit on the side­lines.”

The cou­ple are well­matched in their work, as well as their faith. Tim, a for­mer teacher, works as the coun­try di­rec­tor for an or­gan­i­sa­tion that does trauma coun­selling for refugees and vic­tims of war, “so he is no stranger to the worst things hu­man­ity can spit up… you can­not scare this guy.” He­len lists some of the things he’s had to help peo­ple through and many are, frankly, un­print­able.

Both Tim and He­len have de­vel­oped – through trial and er­ror – cop­ing strate­gies to help them stay sane with the work they do. He­len talks to a ther­a­pist back home in New Zealand: “She’ll ask me ques­tions like, ‘What was the hard­est thing you saw on this trip? What gave you hope?’” They also often Skype their re­spec­tive par­ents in New Zealand, fill­ing them in on what they can.

He­len says her par­ents are ex­tremely sup­port­ive of her work and like to be as in­formed as pos­si­ble about the places she’s go­ing. “Mum is the kind of per­son who, when I tell her I’m go­ing on a trip, she’ll go to the li­brary and get a book out. And my dad likes to track my iPhone!”

Then there were three

Hav­ing a fam­ily – and hav­ing it ar­rive quickly – has forced both He­len and Tim to em­brace a work/life bal­ance that they ad­mit had been lack­ing be­fore­hand. “I con­sider it to be the big­gest priv­i­lege of my life – next to be­ing a mum – to do this job,” He­len says. “So I don’t like to turn work down. But I also have to marry this in­sa­tiable de­sire to be in the field with the de­sire my chil­dren have to have a mama that’s avail­able emo­tion­ally and

“I con­sider it to be the big­gest priv­i­lege of my life – next to be­ing a mum – to do this job.”

phys­i­cally.” She gives credit to “Jaja”, their house helper, who lives with them and acts as a sur­ro­gate grand­mother to their chil­dren. “Her kids are all grown up, so she stands in the gap while I’m out of town.”

In the past three years, He­len and Tim have gone from hav­ing no kids to three, which is, as you might imag­ine, a se­ri­ous ad­just­ment. There’s an adage that says go­ing from one child to two chil­dren is like go­ing from own­ing a pet to run­ning a zoo. He­len laughs and re­sponds with “Hav­ing three chil­dren un­der four is like swim­ming in a pool and you start drown­ing – and then some­one hands you a baby.”

Back in 2014, the cou­ple de­cided to be­gin the adop­tion process. When the call about a child came, He­len and

Tim were given just nine min­utes warn­ing to pre­pare for the ar­rival of their first daugh­ter. “We were on our way up to South Su­dan with five psy­chol­o­gists and we got a phone call about a lit­tle baby and whether we would like to do some emer­gency foster care,” He­len re­calls. “I didn’t know if this would end up be­ing a for­ever thing or a two-day thing.”

Hope was just six days old when they took her home, but the adop­tion wasn’t fi­nalised for an­other three years, due to the overly com­pli­cated Ugan­dan laws (which have since changed). Wait­ing to find out if Hope would stay with them was, He­len says, “the worst sea­son of my en­tire life be­cause it was so freak­ing stress­ful.” Then in 2016, He­len gave birth to Eva. The fam­ily came back to New Zealand for her ar­rival and the first three months of Eva’s life, un­til she got her im­mu­ni­sa­tions. Fi­nally, in Septem­ber last year, they adopted Maz, who’s just turned one. All three chil­dren are adapt­ing well to each other, even if Eva is sweetly con­fused about her own sta­tus. “She thinks she’s adopted,” He­len laughs. “She prays for her own adop­tion – and she iden­ti­fies as African; she un­der­stands the lan­guage pretty well too.”

Their el­dest chil­dren have some un­der­stand­ing of their par­ents’ com­plex work, and some­times go along with He­len to day jobs where there will be other kids for them to play with. “I want to teach my kids that the world doesn’t re­volve around them; that Mummy and Daddy have work that we be­lieve is re­ally im­por­tant and there are sto­ries that need to be told, and we want to help tell them. I just want to raise kids who un­der­stand the big­ger pic­ture and know they have a role in that too.”

While there are vague plans to move to New Zealand for the chil­dren’s school­ing at some stage, for now life in Uganda con­tin­ues. De­spite what she sees, de­spite the hor­rors of the places she’s been, He­len says her over­all faith in hu­man­ity re­mains mostly un­scathed. “The more I get out, the more I re­alise these per­pe­tra­tors are an ex­tremely tiny per­cent­age that are just wreak­ing mass havoc and leav­ing a trail of de­struc­tion in their path. And yes, some­times it can make you feel like the world is go­ing to hell in a hand basket,” she says. “But then I see the re­silience. The re­silience of the hu­man spirit is out­ra­geous. And when I see that, I know there is hope – and the dark­ness will not win.”


CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: A mother and child from a slum in Kampala; a girl at a Bangladesh refugee camp; po­lio drops are given to a refugee baby from South Su­dan. OP­PO­SITE: The Man­son fam­ily.

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