I came across the work of Nigeria-based photographer Etinosa Yvonne as I was following @WomenPhotograph on Twitter.
I started following her and she followed me back soon after. Through her work and social media efforts, I could tell the way she is someone who cares deeply about what she is doing.
Etinosa is a self taught photographer living in Abuja, Nigeria. She was the recipient of an award this year from Women Photograph+ Nikon to work on her project It’s All in My Head, exploring the long term impact of conflict and terrorism in Nigeria after two decades of ongoing violence through double exposure portraits.
Many of the individuals are survivors of the brutality of militant group Boko Haram, while others were caught in conflicts in their state. The overlay image on her portraits are a visual representation of how the trauma they experienced manifests in their minds.
So when I decided to pursue my project about the mental health of women in photography, I knew she would be the first person I wanted talk to.
This was one of the more interesting and logistically-challenging interviews I have done: between a nine hour time difference and Wi-fi access issues, our WhatsApp call was dropped several times and there was a point where we delayed our call for a few hours until her connection improved.
However, that did not stop us from continuing our conversation into the late night on her side of the world.
Here is what came out of our conversation.
In your latest project It’s All in My Head, you travel to different parts of Nigeria to interview and photograph individuals who have been through terrorism or conflict. How do you cope emotionally with speaking to survivors of severe trauma?
When I come back home from the trips, I will take a week off. I reflect on some of the things I’ve heard and try not to do anything that is connected to the project so that I can get myself together.
When you are taking in so much of listening to people and their stories, listening to their pain, you come back and you have to deal with how you feel.
So I take time off, a week or two and do nothing related to the project. I read books or read research related to projects I’d like to do in the future.
In all honesty, no matter how much I try to disconnect myself, somewhere in my head I am still thinking – maybe I am not physically doing anything (related to the project) like editing pictures, I am still trying to assess the things I’ve heard.
I consciously make it a point to not to anything related to the project, at least for a few days, to get myself together. If there are opportunities where I can talk about it, I will so I can release some of the emotions in me and that helps me. I don’t have access to therapy so I try to be my own therapy and I try to help myself.
What goes through your mind as you are talking to survivors? Also, what goes through your mind afterward, when you are editing photos and putting together a narrative?
For me, I never really detach from the stories. Taking time off is just to be able to breathe, so I don’t have too much (emotion) in me. Whenever I come back to the stories, it’s the same as almost being there.
Right when I come back from a trip, the emotions seem fresh and it still feels like some minutes ago, I can still see everybody’s face, I can still hear their voice and I still feel what I felt during the interview. I’ve been thinking that it’s fine, but it really doesn’t change the fact that the way that I feel when I am working on the project is the same way I feel when I am out there on the field.
With the way that present in my work, I play with double exposures so I have to make sure that I am in a certain mood to tell the story. I want to be able to get people to feel what I felt, so I am actually very much soaked up in the story. When I am working on the pictures, when I am reading my interview book…they are very fresh memories.
If I stop feeling for the story, then there is really no point. It means I am numb and not feeling anything which is not good for the project, since I am trying to show people what is going on in survivors’ heads.
When we report on trauma, there may be a part of us that is doing so to heal from our own trauma. With that in mind, has personal trauma helped you tell your stories?
When I graduated from the university, I worked as a customer service representative. It was during that time that I learned to be empathic. So when I talk to survivors, I think about the things I have been through in my own life and I relate to people I am talking to.
However, a lot of the stories I am collecting are not like my experiences at all. But when you are empathic, you have to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes. I imagine if what happened to them were to happen to me, how would I feel?
I don’t have experiences that directly compare – yes, I have been through traumatic experiences, but I feel it wouldn’t be fair to compare what I have been through to what these people have been through, but somewhere in my head I can connect. I know through my time in customer service has made me understand what they are going through. I can’t really say that I feel their pain, but it is because I put myself in their shoes. I close my eyes and I keep thinking, this is how it used to be for them and this is who they are now and that drives me, to be able to empathic with my work.
As a creative professional, have you ever been offered mental health counseling?
I have been offered services through a non-governmental organization – they asked if they could list me as one of the people that the therapist would see every now and then. I told them I was quite interested in it but it hasn’t materialized just yet.
They approached me basically saying, “We know you are doing this type of work, it’s a lot you are taking in – if you need somebody to just talk to every once in a while, we have the therapies – we’re wondering if you would be interested.”
It’s something I am looking forward to because sometimes I come back and I am really messed up, I just need somebody to listen to what I have to say – there is really nobody else to talk to (about my projects).
For work and personal experience, for women, what do you think the value of sisterhood (relating to other women) when it comes to healing from emotional trauma?
I think that having a strong support group of women when you come back from trips like this, or if you are going through a traumatic situation where you are healing, it can really help because…we’re all women, most times there are things we go through that we all can relate to – it can go a long way if we have more platforms where women can connect with each other and share their stories, their experiences, talk about how they are feeling, how they are coping, what’s going on in their head, really can just pour out without being judged and looked down on for making yourself look vulnerable.
I think there needs to be more platforms like this, like the Women Photograph platform where I belong to, you see ladies talking about what they are going through- asking questions, how do you cope with this- I feel we need more of these type of communities we can actually talk about things we go through and how we can recover from trauma without the views of men or anybody judging us.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to go into photographing, or otherwise documenting trauma?
You have to remind yourself why you are doing your projects. When you start, it is going to be a lot you are taking in – not very pleasant situations you might find yourself in at all times.
I feel stories like this, you have to feel some kind of connection. If there is no connection, you probably won’t go far.
However, handling stories like this can feel like too much. It might not be easy work but I feel it is very important in the end.
There are times that I know that I need to take a break. You need to take breaks because your mental health is very important. If you need to get a trusted friend or family member you can talk to and just pour out how you feel. If you need to write about it or use social media – do it for a release.
I feel like if you are doing this type of work, you need to find what works best for you. If you can’t afford to speak to a counselor or therapist, you should find a way around to try to release some of the emotions you have inside of you in a way that will not harm you.
Taking a break does not mean you have failed, it just means you need to take care of yourself.
You can read more about Etinosa Yvonne and see more of her work at her website: http://www.etinosayvonne.me/
This is part of a Q&A series with photographers who identify as women, or non-binary, about mental health in relation to their personal lives and professional work.
You can read more about this project and its purpose by visiting the About page for Amber J. Stephens Photography.