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‘A Kind Of Addiction’

Ethiopia--Czech journalist Lenka Klicperova with a woman from the Suma tribe.
Ethiopia--Czech journalist Lenka Klicperova with a woman from the Suma tribe.

Intrepid Czech photojournalist connects with women in war-torn countries.

Lenka Klicperova has lost count of the number of countries she has visited. Her work as a photojournalist has taken her across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, often to war zones and usually in search of stories about women’s lives.

She was recently awarded at the prestigious Czech Press Photo competition for her work on a photo series about Iraqi refugees in Irbil, as well as for a short video documentary about acid attacks in India that she co-produced. She is a co-founder and editor in chief for the travel reportage magazine Lide a Zeme (People and Country), and runs a non-profit umbrella organization for women journalists who cover stories focused on women called Femisphera.

“I love this kind of work,” she explained. “It’s a kind of addiction.”

“This kind of work” often involves spending prolonged periods of time in places that are extremely dangerous, especially for women. Most of Klicperova’s work centers on war, gender inequality, and the ways they intersect. As a result, she often finds herself skirting landmines and living on the frontlines. Preparation involves months of work and securing a trustworthy interpreter or “fixer” in these places, usually a man who can help her dodge the restrictions of gender norms along the way. On the other hand, she finds it easy to gain the trust of the women she interviews.

“The distance between me and my subject is quite small,” she said. “Most women are not afraid to speak in front of me because they feel some kind of connection between us.”

Through this connection, Klicperova is able to cover sensitive and underreported topics. In 2008, she reported on sexual violence in the war zone of eastern Congo in what would become her first project for Femisphera. In 2009, she met and photographed women of the Samburu tribe in Kenya, where female genital cutting is both a time-honored tradition and, for some, a source of pain and trauma. The resulting article explored the varying responses amongst tribe members to Kenya’s ban on the practice.

Klicperova’s career really took off last year, however, when she produced a video documentary called Like a Virgin, which also won a Czech Press Photo award. The video follows a dwindling group of northern Albanian women who take oaths of virginity and live the rest of their lives as men. Where there is a lack of competent men to head their families, these women step up to fill typically masculine roles. Due to the isolation of the community, Like a Virgin took Klicperova five years to complete.

“It was very clear to me that I have to cover it somehow, sometime,” she said.

The growing attention to Klicperova’s work may help garner support for her current projects, among them a documentary profiling four brave women from four different countries, one of whom is an Afghan doctor running two hospitals. She is also planning a trip to Cameroon to cover the widespread practice of breast ironing.

“A lot of mothers [there] want their daughters to study, but many young girls get pregnant very early,” she explains. “So the mothers think it’s a good idea to do something so that these girls won’t be so attractive to men.”

As a result, mothers put hot irons to their daughters’ breasts to keep them from developing, which permanently scars them and prevents them from breastfeeding in the future.

Klicperova hopes that her work can serve a purpose beyond being a source of novelty for Czech readers. While not every problem she covers has a solution, she hopes her work can help with the ones that do. She and her colleagues are setting up a public fund for the Syrian city of Kobani, which was destroyed by Islamic State (ISIS) militants and which Klicperova recently visited to research a forthcoming book on Syrian refugees.

“Kobani is a symbol of the war against ISIS,” she said. “There is quite a large number of people who are returning to Kobani from refugee camps in Turkey, because ISIS was pulled out of the city.” Those who have returned are trying to rebuild, but, she added, “They have nothing, no money, and material is very expensive. But people there are very kind to us--they are absolutely amazing.”

This is perhaps the most common misconception that Klicperova deconstructs in her work--that dangerous places necessarily require the people who live in them to be constantly unhappy. In Syria, she stayed with female soldiers fighting ISIS as part of the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units. In one photo from her trip, the soldiers are laughing together in a tent.

“It’s not always about the sadness of war,” she said. “Sometimes you can feel the happiness in your life there because death is so close…It’s one kilometer away.”

--Sasha Peters