Phil Borges documents the strength of women in the developing world
"I wanted this to be a series of hero stories," says Phil Borges, author of "Women Empowered." His new book of portraits celebrates the contributions of women from developing nations who are playing a significant role in executing lasting social change.
"I consider these women on the vanguard of a global shift to bring feminine power back into the human experience," he says. "It's a slow shift that's happening right now. These are the unsung and unknown heroes on the vanguard of that movement."
Partnering with the organization CARE, Borges' "Women Empowered" builds upon the humanity, character and purpose of his previous works. His books "Enduring Spirit" and "Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion" effectively raised awareness about the issues faced by people in the developing world and catapulted Borges' photography into the national consciousness.
In 1987, Borges sold his 18-year dental practice, taking a giant leap of faith that led him through jungles, deserts, valleys and mountain ranges, and carried him across more than 50 countries. Now living in Seattle, he returns from his journeys with more precious cargo: photographs and notepads full of stories about people he has met along the way.
A global injustice
"I've been going into the developing world for 20 to 30 years, and I've noticed how women's rights are compromised," explains Borges, discussing the primary catalyst for the project. "From Ecuador to Ethiopia, many women have no voice in the decision-making process, yet they do most of the work. I knew discrimination against women occurred – that's what got me into the project – but I didn't know how deep the discrimination was."
Consider these harrowing statistics about the affairs of women in developing countries: Women produce 50 percent of the world's food, yet own only 1 percent of total farmland. Some 75 percent of the world's 867 million illiterate adults are women. "At least one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some way, most often by someone she knows," says Borges.
Intent on telling stories of how women across the world are overcoming challenges, hardships and discrimination, Borges forged an alliance with CARE, an international hu- manitarian organization that seeks to empower women and girls in an effort to eliminate global poverty. "When talking about an injustice in the world, I like to wrap that injustice in a positive wrapper," he says. "I want to tell the story of someone who is rising above that inequity.
"I wanted the book to be a global survey, to represent Africa, South America and Asia," he adds. "I traveled to countries where CARE operates, to identify those women who are serving as catalysts for change in their communities. I would go into a community where CARE works and ask folks to point me to the most outspoken woman who has done the most to change her community. I want the viewer to see these women as individuals, to know their names and a bit of their history, not just to view them as anonymous strangers in some remote ethnic or tribal group."
Developing a rapport
The portraits were shot with a Hasselblad camera (using Tri X film) and the Canon 1Ds Mark II. To achieve the muted tones and pale pastels in the images, Borges started by using a complex combination of digital and platinum printing processes, "combining very old and very new techniques." Digital negatives are registered on paper coated with a platinum and palladium emulsion, then exposed to ultraviolet light. After much experimentation, Borges discovered that manipulating tones and contrast using Photoshop delivered the best results. Prints were produced using the Hewlett Packard Z3100 12-ink photo printer.
The finished images convey a strong sense of power emanating from his subjects, but Borges is quick to deflect credit away from himself or his technique.
"I'm not going out there asking women to look strong and powerful. They provide that themselves," he says. "The greatest challenge is to help viewers understand other people and bring them closer together in a global community. This is the purpose of my work."
Establishing connection and rapport with each subject took hours, while the actual shooting time for the portraits ranged from 10 to 20 minutes. He says that working with women in the developing world is relatively easy compared to portrait photography in North American culture. "Women in the developing world are not as self-conscious, as they are more outwardly directed. They're more curious about me and my process than how they would look in the photographs," he says.
In Afghanistan, Borges learned that his usual hands-on approach to getting familiar with subjects needed adjustment. "When I first met the women, I reached out to shake their hands, and I was told that I couldn't do that," he says. Some of the Afghani women didn't want to be photographed at all. "There was still a lot of holdover from Taliban rule, when photography of any kind was forbidden."
The portrait of Asgeli, who graces the book's cover, is among Borges' favorite shots (see page 32). "You see her in the doorway of her hut, with children in the background," he says. "It's a very warm and inviting image, and she has a very deliberate and calm presence." Another portrait of a woman named Gilo, from Yabelo, Ethiopia, is also a personal favorite, Borges says. "She has a wrinkle on her brow that makes her look more serious than she actually is."
While most of his portraits for the book involved a great deal of time and preparation, Borges talks fondly of the unplanned moments that occurred during the process of selecting women to be profiled. In Ethiopia, Borges heard about a group of women who were successful at banding together to put an end to the practice of female circumcision.
He set out to profile the group, and traveled with Abay, an interpreter from CARE. "As we rode into the desert, she started talking about herself," says Borges, who learned that the young woman ran away from her tribe at age 10 because she refused to be circumcised.
"After nearly 10 years away, she returned home as a CARE employee to organize the com- munity to build a water system, clinic and school, and also convince others why female genital cutting is a bad practice," Borges says. In raising awareness about the dangers of genital cutting, Abay took many risks with her personal safety.
"She was beaten with a stick, kicked to the ground and threatened with a gun, but that didn't stop her," says Borges. In time, Abay gained the confidence of the women in her tribe, and one allowed her to film a circumcision ceremony. By showing the film to tribal elders who had never witnessed the procedure, she convinced them to end the practice.
"One of the ways women empower themselves and their communities is by getting together," Borges says, talking about one of the most important lessons he took away from the project. "Women are natural networkers, and they work and collaborate very well together. I've seen firsthand how, when women are given the opportunity and become empowered with education or access to resources, it's the quickest way to put a cap on population pressures and to help stop the spread of AIDS."
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote the foreword for the book "Women Empowered," hailing Borges' work as a vital contribution toward increasing public awareness about the plight of women and children in the developing world.
"Through the stunning photography and straightforward commentary of Phil Borges, readers come to know how women such as Fahima in Afghanistan, Abay in Ethiopia, Hasina in Bangladesh and Violeta in Ecuador are improving and enriching their own lives and those of the people around them," Albright wrote.
Learning about inspiring and encouraging stories of women rising above myriad challenges was the most rewarding aspect of the project, says Borges. "Things are changing for women all over the world, and it's important to realize how little it takes to make those changes," he says.
A recent United Nations study revealed that women spend 90 percent of their income on their families, while men spend only 30 to 40 percent of their income on theirs. "Give a woman a small loan, and she can transform her life, the condition of her family and, eventually, her community," Borges adds.
In addition to Albright, "Women Empowered" also features written contributions by Isabel Allende, model-turned-activist Christy Turlington Burns and CARE president Helene Gayle. Borges credits his wife and longtime business partner, Julee Geier, for a large part of the success of his work. "I create the product, but she gets it out there," says Borges, complimenting Geier's management and marketing acumen. "She is amazing."
More stories to tell
Despite the support and enthusiasm of high-profile and influential folks, the project was not without its glitches, Borges says. "Getting this book published was harder than I thought. It was a hard sell," he says. "Most of the publishers that I talked to didn't think they could sell the book, that it wouldn't do well. I got as many rejections from publishers on this book as I got on my very first book about Tibet."
At press time, "Women Empowered" was scheduled for release on International Women's Day (March 8th) and will be available at Borders and Waldenbooks. Borges is pleased with the advance critical acclaim he has received thus far, and says his only regret is not being able to feature more women. "As the process went on, we began to hear about more and more people," he says. "There are so many fantastic stories that I would've liked [to have] included in the book."
Beyond celebrating the accomplishments of pioneering women across the world, Borges also hopes to affect the conversation about national security by addressing global poverty. "As Americans, we focus on our security against terrorism by building up our defenses and by using military means, but the only true building blocks of security are helping the developing world attain some level of equality, by sharing our resources and knowledge," he says.
"It's important for us to be aware of and share interdependencies," Borges adds. "If not, we'll never create the world we all hope will exist for future generations. My main goal at the end of the day is to have helped build some cross-cultural understanding."