Daughters of revolution

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The Independent Culture
The double image shown here was taken in 1988, at the first Intifada in the Gaza Strip. It spontaneously erupted during a sudden closure imposed by the Israeli army, effectively imprisoning its Palestinian residents and preventing them from going to work "across the border". The Israeli assassination of Arafat's second-in-command brought protesters onto the streets, even onto buildings. The women have their hands raised in lamentation, the men in victory signs. The men are the fighters, faces covered guerrilla-style, while the women cover only their hair.

For photographer Jenny Matthews, this was an early experience of getting caught in a war zone. She was the only photographer caught in the Strip as the military barriers went up; she didn't speak the language and was unsure which way to run when the shooting started. She tripped and sprained an ankle. It was the first hot war she'd got caught literally in the middle of. "I'm one of those useless people who never know the difference between an incoming and an outgoing boom."

When Format Photographers all-women picture agency was established in 1983, it had a permanent ongoing project to document women's work. Matthews chose women and conflict.

Over the past 15 years she has followed wars from Central America to Africa, from Afghanistan to lsrael. She has been funded by non-governmental organisations; by women's aid agencies and human rights groups; by glossy magazines and daily newspapers. And she comes out with shocking statements such as: "Last week I went to India [for Marie Claire] and it was terrific - no strife and no corpses! Last month I was back in Sudan [for the Guardian] and it's impossible to get used to children dying before your eyes."

There are few corpses in her present exhibition, which includes this picture. Just one, a diminutive bundle swaddled in a white tablecloth and abandoned on the border between Congo and Rwanda last year, an emblem of pathos rather than horror. As shocking is the pile of human bones, relics of the Biserero genocide in 1995, exhibited alongside a heap of rifles impounded from the fleeing Rwandan soldiers. From a short distance the two look interchangeable: horizontal stacks of the weapons of massacre alongside the brittle remains of its victims.

At one end of the gallery is a very different type of commemoration; 40 headshots of women, mainly Tutsi but also Hutu, printed onto a muslin sheet. Muslin, material sufficiently fine and strong that women turn it to any number of practical uses (from straining water to binding babies), mattered to Matthews because: "It's a delicate fabric, reflecting the fragility of people's lives following a massacre."

Just as women soldiers were kept away from the action until very recently, so women photographers were allowed only as far as the field hospital or the officers' mess until the Second World War.

Historically, then, the emphasis has necessarily been on photographing the effects rather than the attacks. And women, Matthews believes, can have a different experience. "It can help to be a woman photographer: women take you in. They're not afraid to give you shelter." Their protective role is the first most immediate response: "Women always reach for children. They are so fiercely protective of them and always put them first. That's why women are so interested in peace - to build a better future for a next generation."

Women's concern for the young and the future may be a constant, but wars are gaining in complexity and diversity the world over. After the First World War, the Red Cross estimated that over 90 per cent of casualties took place in the trenches. By the time of the Gulf War, it was far safer to be a boy in blue whizzing about the skies then a refugee mother or child on the ground.

Last New Year's Eve, Jenny was caught in the aerial bombing of Bamiyan, taking pictures of families sheltering in a ditch. Overwhelmingly, however, it is the lack of visible conflict which characterises this exhibition.

"War just means even more difficult circumstances for people already in difficult circumstances. Daily life has to go on, only with women in charge. Often they have to become the economic as well as the domestic providers."

This is illustrated by the shot of evening classes on the front line in Eritrea, the women seated in rows, heads bowed and covered, with only the tutor showing her hair and her gun.

'Women and Conflict': Freedom Forum, W2 (0171 262 5003), to 30 October.

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