FotoFest Exhibitions

Sara Terry

Selected By: Sue Brisk, Independent Photography Project Editor,
Media Consultant, Branding, Print Sales, New York, United States


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In My Life: the story of an Ex-Girl Soldier

From the project:
Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa

How does one describe the horror of being a child soldier?

This very personal story is part of photojournalist Sara Terry’s project on forgiveness traditions in post-conflict African countries. Ms. Terry learned through mutual friends about a girl, Miriam (her name has been changed to protect her identity), who is struggling to forgive herself for her actions as a child soldier when she was forced to execute villagers. And execute them she did.

Kidnapped by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) at age eleven and forced to join their ranks, Miriam lived a violent life of terror for nearly a decade. She learned how to take orders to commit horrible atrocities. She killed people for no particular reason. If she refused to follow the demands made on her, she would have been killed by her commander, or “enslaver.”

Kill or be killed. Feel nothing. Bury your personal fears. Accept the terror. Continual sexual violations were part of the ordeal. How does a child overcome the experience of enduring humiliation, terror, trauma, and violence for such an unimaginable length of time? How does Miriam allow herself forgiveness?

Photographs have made us eyewitnesses to war. We have seen youth with AK-47s and machetes, sweating in the hot sun with their desire to kill. When the anger boils over, there are no rules, no governments. My memory of Africa, mostly from Liberia and Sierra Leone coverage, has haunted me. The news coverage created indelible imagery, courtesy of photographers who worked in extremely dangerous conditions. Photographers who cover conflict or war record extremely volatile situations. They witness the hellish mania, rioting, beatings, bullets, blood on the streets, body parts, and beheadings, often from internal wars with no end in sight. The more graphic pictures go unseen in the United States, as few news outlets have the courage to publish them.

Where are those kids now? Have they forgiven themselves or do they continue the cycle of violence? Sara Terry explores what happened to their minds and how the aftermath of violence affected them. We have seen the blood of the dead, the scars of the tortured, and the fear of those with their lives in ruins. But what about the souls and minds of the ones who perpetrated the violence and who must now contend with their past? Miriam is someone fighting her past and trying to live for a future. After my first viewing of Ms. Terry’s project, the impact of this very disturbing story lingered. How did Miriam survive her years in captivity? Can she herself overcome the enormous stigma of that captivity? Will she be rejected by her village or family? Will she be killed?

This chronicle of images and handwritten words by both photographer/journalist and ex-child soldier enables each to discover a path to safety. Miriam attempts to forge her way through the psychological trauma of her monstrous past to obtain forgiveness. Through photography, she unconsciously recreates visuals that serve as metaphors of her past rebel life. The bond between Sara Terry and her subject is symbiotic. The triptych and portrait convey mystery and sadness within a respectful silence. In Sara Terry’s photographs Miriam can see herself and find the safety to rediscover her past.

The images taken by Miriam herself look innocent, as though she is playing with a small camera on a class trip or snapping Polaroids for the family album. The simplicity of her imagery, however, is in stark contrast to the handwritten text describing Miriam’s nightmare. Viewers quickly absorb her experience, through the simple imagery and the simple comments, because Miriam speaks a simple truth. Yet we want to know more: How does anyone overcome such deep personal scars? Can the stigma of war ever dissipate when you are the killer? Once you have essentially been “killed” by the experience of living as a child soldier, brainwashed and stripped of all human rights, can you repair the psychological damage? Unfortunately, Miriam’s experience is not unusual. This is a crucial human rights problem that needs more attention from the public.

This is work that matters; children are still being kidnapped and subjected to horrors. Can it or will it ever end? Perhaps we cannot heal the wounds, but we can encourage self-forgiveness and begin to create a larger awareness of the regions and the victims most in need.

“You” are now a witness.

- Sue Brisk

This work has been made in collaboration with Catalyst for Peace (Portland, Maine)


A former reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and a freelance magazine writer, Sara Terry made a mid-career transition into documentary photography in the late 1990s. Her long-term project about the aftermath of the war in Bosnia, Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace, was published by Channel Photographics in 2005. Her work has been widely exhibited at venues that include the United Nations, New York; the Antwerp Museum of Photography; and Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls, New York. Her photographs are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and in many private collections. In 2005, she received a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation for her work in Bosnia. She is the founder of The Aftermath Project, a non-profit program that awards grants to photographers who cover the aftermath of conflict.