GUELPH -- Maurice Henri knows how using a camera has helped him to come out of his introverted shell, but even the Moncton, N.B.-based photographer is surprised at how positive and powerful the experience has been for victims of war in Sierra Leone.
As he prepares to return this fall to the African country that was embroiled in a bitter and vicious decade-long civil war in the 1990s, it's with even greater hope and conviction than his original visit in October. Armed once again with cameras and film, Henri will help villagers speak the unspeakable, release their anger, overcome their trauma and take charge of their futures as they photograph their lives.
"It's a form of art therapy, but I think this is the first time a project incorporates psychology with photography," said Henri, who will speak about his non-profit project, Cameras for Healing, at the Barber Gallery on Thursday evening.
"You hear about wars but when they are over, you never hear about what happens to the people who are left behind. This is the war that introduced the world to child-soldiers, that saw village people mutilated, women and children raped repeatedly.
"This is horrible, horrible stuff they lived through, yet they don't have much of a future if they can't get over it. But give them a camera and suddenly they have some control. They have hope. There is healing."
Henri said he was first introduced to the horrors of Sierra Leone while on a photographic tour of Africa with Canadian photographer and Order of Canada recipient Freeman Patterson. When he saw the poorest country in the world and its fragile inhabitants, he said he felt compelled to do something.
But selling his photographs and donating the proceeds wasn't enough, he said. And after speaking with Moncton-based psychologist Dr. Charles Emmerys, who had his own project, Computers for Schools in Sierra Leone, Henri devised his own philanthropic plan for the country.
"Artistic expression is a form of communication that very often is safe and effective," said John Doan, a Guelph photographer and expert in emotional intelligence who will travel to Sierra Leone with Henri in the fall.
"Many can't verbalize what they've been through, but through the lens they are able to express themselves. The effect has been profound," Doan said.
Henri tells of one woman, Bebe, who witnessed her husband being killed and then fled with her two infant daughters into the jungle. Without a weapon to defend herself, a tool to hunt for food, or a match to light a fire, her daughters died of starvation and Bebe very nearly gave up.
But she returned to fight the rebels and became a nurse when the conflict ended. But when Henri and his crew came to town last year, she was vocal and suspicious of the project.
Eventually she embraced it though, and now has hooked up with other women to run an orphanage of sorts, Henri said. She teaches kids to draw and play sports and be creative -- a new generation with positive influences in their lives instead of war and destruction.
"That's the kind of outcome I look forward to seeing when I return," Henri said.
He spent three weeks with villagers and taught them the basics of photography. Some also learned how to process film in a dark room.
Their task is to shoot and document a day in their lives, to capture on film what they see, what they feel and how they live their lives.