Fellowship allows S. African photographer to examine gun violence

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The images of grieving mothers, of survivors, of those out to make a difference hung silently in Annenberg Hall July 2.

They depicted moments in time captured by Nidaa Husain, a photographer from South Africa, in Philadelphia on a fellowship from Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, to document the lasting impact of gun violence.

Nidaa Husain (photo courtesy Jim MacMillan)

Nidaa Husain (photo courtesy Jim MacMillan)

“The overriding theme of images that we’re given about gun violence in mainstream media is very much an anonymous body and caution tape,” says Husain. “Already a trauma is becoming normalized. I don’t think that this is specific to Philadelphia, it’s very much a global thing.”

While gun violence isn’t a subject Husain had tackled before, she says she was attracted to the opportunity, created in association with the Market Photo Workshop Photo Documentary Program in South Africa, because it rang true to her “feelings for justice and for the voices of the voiceless being heard.” Husain’s family was just the second of color to move into a traditionally white neighborhood. They were regular recipients of strange looks and underhanded remarks, she says. “We used to get looked at like we were lost.”

This summer, Husain has taken SMC students with her into the field as she interviewed and photographed subjects for the project. It’s a relationship that will continue with students involved in the SMC Study Away Program in South Africa July 15 to Aug. 17. Four photojournalism students enrolled in the Market Photo Workshop have been assigned to produce a photo essay and an exhibition on the relationship between wealthy South Africans and their guns. Their work will be displayed in Annenberg this fall.

“I chose to focus on the topic of gun violence in Philadelphia and Johannesburg so that both Nidaa and our students could study, interpret and learn about the similarities in the epidemic of guns and gun violence in South Africa and the U.S.,” says journalism professor Shenid Bhayroo, the fellowship’s faculty director. “Both Philadelphia and Johannesburg have high levels of gun violence, and I thought it important to show how our communities in both cities are affected. Our students not only benefit from learning about gun violence in another country, but also, through their stories, they will highlight our common destiny, and the consequent need to find solutions to this public health crisis that is tearing apart our communities.”

A Philadelphia partner

Husain has teamed up with Gun Crisis Reporting Project, an organization that reports on gun violence in Philadelphia and seeks solutions to what it calls “the epidemic of homicide by gunfire.”

“Too little gun violence reporting paints a portrait of the victims and survivors,” says Gun Crisis Editor Jim MacMillan. “Focusing on the aftermath and impact on loved ones through photojournalism can bring dimension to victims, which makes it more difficult for news consumers to look away from the issue.”

Through MacMillan, Husain quickly connected with support groups and the families of gun victims. She attended a vigil in West Philadelphia for 20-year-old Montel Royster, who, according to a philly.com article, was shot in the stomach and chest May 18.

“There’s so much more in the cycle of gun violence than illegal guns and gang activity,” she says. “There is deep grief and fear that seeps beyond the family of someone who has been shot, whether they lived or not, and it seeps into the general consciousness.”

Capturing the moment

When she decided to focus on the grieving and healing process, Husain feared that it would be hard to capture photographically, but she’s “witnessed very raw moments, very human moments. That’s what I wanted to get into: the human experience of living amongst violence.”

The Gun Crisis Reporting Project has worked with international journalists before, but Husain is the first to live in the city and work inside the organization.

“I spend a lot of time trying to disrupt the normalization of gun violence, and I have been looking forward to Nidaa’s perspective, coming from a nation that has struggled with violence as well,” MacMillan says.

Bhayroo believes this has been a two-way learning experience for Husain and the SMC students.

“Nidaa has benefited from our students’ knowledge of the Philadelphia area which they have shared with her, and our students have watched how Nidaa has applied this knowledge to her project,” he says.

As for Husain, it seems the lifelong impact of gun violence will be a topic that remains close to her heart back in South Africa.

“I haven’t heard of any of these types of organizations back at home. So to be able to share their objectives back home—and I know there’s a need for it—that’ll be very interesting. Hopefully we can get people talking more,” she says.

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