Two 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.

A solemn girl plays with her mother’s 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.

Two sisters-in-law, friends for twenty years, embrace outside a house they are cleaning in São Paulo, one resting her head on the other’s shoulder.

A 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 Vito’ria settlement.

Photojournalist Susan Sterner ’86C, now a White House photographer documenting Laura Bush’s 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 United States.

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 poverty—single 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.

“Every day,” Sterner says, “is a lesson in making hard choices.”

But Sterner, who has a master’s degree in Latin American studies from Vanderbilt University and whose command of Portuguese allowed her entry into the women’s conversations, was also inspired by the strength, laughter, and dancing of Brazilian women, who are learning to rely on each other for encouragement.

“Towns are forming crisis centers and women’s groups, like the Women’s 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, he’ll kill me.’ ”

Sterner 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.

”They 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.

“I 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?’ ”

Sterner’s 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.

Each 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.

“Susan is a phenomenal photographer—she 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 she’s photographing,” says Billy Howard, a freelance photographer in Atlanta who works for CARE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among other international organizations.

Howard, 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 she’s empathetic, she isn’t 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 can’t get the picture until you build the trust.”

With some, however, this trust wasn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 amazing—every person I followed led to another dimension of Brazilian life.”

Sterner 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.

“What we are missing, though, is Brazil’s public life—everyone 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.”

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