Whether she’s in Africa, Romania or Haiti, photographer Kristen Ashburn’s goal is always the same — to showcase the dignity of the people she covers.
Ashburn shared and spoke about her work during a lecture titled “Global Health and Humanitarian Crises — A View of the World through the Lens of Kristen Ashburn” in the New College Building Feb. 28. The 45-minute lecture and slideshow of the award-winning documentary photographer’s work and its audience of about 30 people were hosted by Drexel’s School of Public Health and College of Medicine.
“I think it’s great that there can be some exchange from a healthcare perspective and from a journalistic perspective because oftentimes in the field we work alongside of each other,” Ashburn said.
The photographs she shared showed people affected by health crises in other countries: victims of disease, their families and the volunteers who devote their time to helping these people feel loved and cared for.
Ashburn, who has won many awards for her photography, began the presentation of her black-and-white photograph collection with images from an institution for mentally and physically challenged orphans in Romania. She initially visited what was known as a children’s “hospital for irrecuperables” as an activist, assisting the children, but soon switched her focus to documenting the poor conditions these children were forced to live under every day.
She showed images of obviously malnourished children with shaved heads and tattered clothes and sometimes bellies bloated from hunger. Other pictures showed the children outside in the institution’s play area, where they had been allotted only an hour of playtime each day before Romania began its transition to democracy after the 1989 revolution and social institutions began to change.
The staff was poorly educated and didn’t know how to treat the children properly. One photo showed children between the ages of five and 10 learning for the first time how to feed themselves with bowls and spoons. These children had been tied to chairs and force-fed scalding hot food all their lives, so they had never learned to feed themselves.
“The smells and the sounds of this place will forever haunt me,” Ashburn said of the institution, noting that many of the children have since been adopted.
Images of prisons for people with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis in Siberia also represented a portion of the slideshow. These showed 16 grown men sharing a single jail cell at one time in a very packed prison where MDRTB could easily spread.
“Any time you get people living on top of each other where a disease can spread nearly through coughing or anything, it’s a real risk,” Ashburn said.
She showed many images of these prisoners, such as one picture of a young girl in a juvenile women’s prison who had MDRTB and was holding a rat, which Ashburn found to be symbolic of the disease.
Her photos of trips to Botswana, Zimbabwe and other African countries affected by the AIDS epidemic were shown through a multimedia presentation. The photos of those she came across who were suffering and even dying from AIDS and the family members who cared for them — often children — were accompanied by voice recordings of the subjects.
“My husband died one year ago … with HIV. … I am having HIV in my body, too. … I think of my baby. … If I die, who is going to keep him?” One of the women featured in the video said.
Other women spoke of their children also being HIV-positive. Ashburn’s photos showed these families at difficult times, in their last hours, at each other’s bedsides and at the quickly filling cemeteries.
“Poverty is for me, at the end, the No. 1 component of HIV. It’s a spiraling effect of education and a spiraling effect of resources,” Ashburn said.
Finally, she revealed photos of her experience in Haiti as its people tried to recover from the destructive 2010 earthquake. Many of the photos showed bodies mixed with huge piles of rubble, as people were unable to bury such large numbers of the dead. Ashburn’s favorite photo of this collection was one of a woman holding a broom in a public park where most survivors had moved. According to Ashburn, this showed how people want to be respected no matter what their circumstances are.
“One of the things I try to maintain a focus on in all of my projects is … seeing that no matter where you are in the world, people want to be treated with respect, and it’s just a circumstance of birth location,” she said.
After the lecture, Ashburn asked questions and signed copies of her book of photography, “I Am Because We Are,” which accompanies a documentary with the same title that was written and produced by Madonna. Madonna also wrote the foreword to Ashburn’s book. She hasn’t received funding to visit Africa again since 2007, so Ashburn is currently touring and sharing her photographs with others.
“My work exists as a memorial to those who have died,” Ashburn said.