women raise their wrinkled, clasped hands in prayer during sunset
mass on a pilgrimage in Juazeiro do Norte, a town nestled in the
dry hills of northeastern Brazil.
solemn girl plays with her mothers hair as they beg on a street
corner in the provincial capital of Recife, as her little brothers
lie on flattened cardboard boxes nearby, shading their eyes from
the morning sun and drinking bottles of rice meal and powdered milk.
sisters-in-law, friends for twenty years, embrace outside a house
they are cleaning in São Paulo, one resting her head on the
pregnant teenage girl balances a basket of laundry on her head while
her two-year-old daughter clings to the side of her dress as they
walk to an irrigation pipe in the Assentamento Vitoria settlement.
Susan Sterner 86C, now a White House photographer documenting
Laura Bushs life as First Lady, spent two years in Brazil
on a Crane-Rogers Foundation fellowship to report on the status
of Brazilian women for the Institute of Current World Affairs. Since
1925, the foundation has allowed young professionals to immerse
themselves in an issue, country, or region by living outside the
lives of the women Sterner met during her travels in Brazil, the
largest and most populous country in South America, seemed dauntingly
precarious. Many exist day to day in exhausting povertysingle
mothers with sick children begging for food and money on streetcorners;
maids and cooks who clean and prepare food for others all day, returning
home to do the same for their families in the evening with little
help from husbands who are absent or abusive; rural midwives who
struggle to provide care to residents deeply distrustful of distant
hospitals and clinics without any support from the state.
day, Sterner says, is a lesson in making hard choices.
Sterner, who has a masters degree in Latin American studies
from Vanderbilt University and whose command of Portuguese allowed
her entry into the womens conversations, was also inspired
by the strength, laughter, and dancing of Brazilian women, who are
learning to rely on each other for encouragement.
are forming crisis centers and womens groups, like the Womens
Life Collective, that have weekly meetings, Sterner said,
reflecting on the experience in a recent interview at a coffee shop
near her home in Arlington, Virginia. There is lip service
paid to the [role of the] mother in Brazil, but there has not always
been support between women. These collectives get women to meet
and talk to each other about reproductive rights, civil rights,
and how to stop the cycle of violence. There were women who attended
the meetings who would say, If my husband finds out I left
the house during the day, hell kill me.
accompanied elderly women on pilgrimages of faith that involved
squeezing through narrow crevices in rocky hillsides, ate freshly
slaughtered goat with a feisty matriarch in an agricultural settlement
community, visited the fetid shack where a mother who begged on
the streets lived with her ten children.
ate what people threw at them from car windows, Sterner said.
The children were all sick. Rats bit them at night. None of
them had many teeth left because people would give them candy to
eat all day. Still, the mother stood in line with all the
children one day for seven hours to get them vaccinated.
learned more from the questions women asked me than the ones I asked
them, Sterner says. They were always very worried about
Tyrone. Where is your husband? they would ask. Who
is going to cook him lunch?
husband, Tyrone Turner, also traveled to Brazil as a Crane-Rogers
fellow to study the state of Brazilian youth, focusing on street
kids addicted to the glue used to make shoes and furniture.
month, Sterner would send back a dispatch to the institute, which
it would make into a newsletter. These photo essays, covering topics
from Street Mothers to Sacred Walks, provided
detailed accounts of her observations. Each was filled with colorful
anecdotes and striking pictures of the women and families whose
stories Sterner shared.
is a phenomenal photographershe has a tremendous eye and a
flawless sense of composition and timing. But, most importantly,
she has the ability to be there, to build trust by truly, genuinely
caring about the people that shes photographing, says
Billy Howard, a freelance photographer in Atlanta who works for
CARE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among other
who met Sterner when she was a photographer for the student newspaper
the Wheel at Emory and he was head of University Photography, has
followed her career with interest. Susan knows her subjects.
She goes so far as to live in their houses with them, he says.
People sense that shes empathetic, she isnt just
trying to exploit them. She sees them as real people, not as subjects
for a photograph, and that comes through in her work. You cant
get the picture until you build the trust.
some, however, this trust wasnt easily gained. Sterner met
several women who were openly suspicious of the gringa who wanted
to photograph them. I was perceived as someone from the land
of milk and honey. One woman said to me, You wouldnt
last a day in my life. I ended up living with her for two
months on a collective in rural Brazil with some two hundred families,
Sterner says. It was amazingevery person I followed
led to another dimension of Brazilian life.
and her husband came back to the United States in December 2000
and now have a year-old son, Nicolas. Upon her return, she was struck
by the tranquility and the amount of space in America. In Brazil,
she says, the First and Third World exist on top of one another.
It feels so crowded. We take rules for granted here, they are so
ingrained, but in Brazil, rules and laws are merely suggestions.
It is more flexible.
we are missing, though, is Brazils public lifeeveryone
on their front porches, pulling tables and chairs outside at night
to talk and eat, grandchildren and grandparents taking Sunday afternoon
walks together. Everyone gets to know your business.
Susan Sterners photographs >>>