28 October 2021
28 October 2021 - Written by Lucia De Stefani
From a drama of violence and abuse to a tale of hope and rebirth, Ugandan photographer DeLovie Kwagala witnesses the experience of 15 young girls whose courageous act brings freedom to them all.
It is a delicate and difficult story that Ugandan photographer DeLovie Kwagala has chosen to chronicle—difficult for the people portrayed, for the viewers who turn to see, and for DeLovie themselves, as they confront an atrocious reality that deeply resonates with their own painful past.
Through their lens, DeLovie transforms a dreadful story of abuse and violation into a tale of rebirth and hope—where the courage of just a few brave girls led to reparations that will bring freedom to them all.
I'm Not My Trauma is the story of 15 young girls, many of whom were children when the abuses occurred, and some of whom are still minors to this day. As the story goes, a German doctor named Bernhard “Bery” Glaser, came to Uganda’s poor villages in 2006 with the intention of opening ‘Bery’s Place,’ a shelter for children from underprivileged families. The promise of food, shelter, clothing, education, and medicine won their parents’ consent to concede custody. But what seemed a safe harbor quickly turned into true hell. Glaser repeatedly abused them, causing unspeakable physical and emotional pain for years to come.
I'm Not My Trauma documents the “sexualization, victimization, and stigmatization” of people who have undergone sexual assault, explains DeLovie, but aims to restore the dignity of those girls who have been violated and empower them.
In developing their project, DeLovie, a non-binary self-taught photographer, proceeded with caution. It took months to win the girl’s trust. “It wasn't easy. They started with talking sessions. They opened up slowly. . . . It was a lot of . . . giving them time to process what had happened and how they wanted to deal with it themselves.” The process also included sharing their own personal story of assault as a minor at the hand of a relative.
“When it happens to you, the first instinct is to fight it, to bury it,” they say. “It helped me open up more to them and share my truth, so that we are connected in some way.”
Because of the girls’ very young age, DeLovie added elements of playfulness and discretion, “to preserve their innocence” and protect them. Often DeLovie resorts to symbolism, snapping pictures of a dress that one of the girls loved, blurring out their subjects or photographing them through a peephole.
In Uganda, the power imbalance between Black and White people is ingrained in the country’s culture, and the dynamics of race and money often intertwine. From an early age, children are taught that Whites are in a position of power and control. So when Glaser introduced himself and his project, the community gave him a warm welcome. Later, when allegations arose, everyone protected themselves at first. Many parents—who felt they had been spared the expenses of raising their children—felt threatened and in some cases scolded their own children: “This person has fed you, has dressed you, he has done all of these things. . . . Why are you ungrateful?” The children remained defenseless and unheard, their testimonies met with suspicion and ridiculed by local media and some members of the community, DeLovie says. Due to lack of hard evidence, such allegations were dismissed and Bery’s Place remained open. The survivors eventually were relocated to housing run by a children’s rights advocate.
As much as I'm Not My Trauma portrays their struggle, it also offers a potent spark of hope as the girls were able to piece their lives back together.
“There was a lot of emotional healing,” DeLovie says, both for the girls and for themselves. “Most of the times, you can turn your trauma into something strong, because trauma never really goes away, but you can turn it around.”
The biggest lesson, DeLovie says, was that speaking up matters. It also channels the need to create a safe space where women and girls who have been abused can come forward and speak about the experience without judgment. More resources are needed, DeLovie explains, including activists and supporters who can embrace and advocate, free and accessible therapy, and also sexual education, as many of the young victims, to some degree, never really understood what was happening to them, they say.
“You can turn it around,” DeLovie says, talking about the therapeutic course of processing trauma, “use it to your advantage, encouraging people to speak up. There’s healing in speaking up—it lifts the weight you feel.”
All photos © DeLovie Kwagala, from the series I'm Not My Trauma
DeLovie Kwagala is a non-binary queer, self-taught photographer, and social activist from Kampala, Uganda, currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Their work explores narratives around identity, belonging, social injustices, and gender-sexuality with the intent to not sexualize, fetishize, or stigmatize—inspired by their experience and those of others. Find them on PHmuseum and Instagram.
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.
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