Under fire: Arms and the woman

Jenny Matthews, a school teacher, picked up a camera, left her job, and spent two harrowing decades travelling the world photographing women at war. By Rachelle Thackray

It is a potent metaphor: children gaze out from their grinding mill posts in the Ethiopian town of Adwa, knowing no other reality than the crushing daily round of oppression and poverty bred by the internal 17-year conflict in the country.

Taken in 1994 by photographer Jenny Matthews, the picture is part of a collection compiled from war-ravaged regions over two decades. She was already in her thirties when she first took up a camera. Having taught French at a north London girls' comprehensive, she embarked on a very different way of life in the early 1980s, returning to turbulent Latin America, where she had already lived and studied.

The lives of the women who survived the constant buffeting of violence, hunger, harrowing poverty, exhaustion and decay intrigued her. "I started taking pictures in Nicaragua because things were changing there, but women's lives are much the same all over the world, although some have much bigger odds to contend with." On her travels, she captured the courageous protests of the Guatemalan women who went on strike to support student protests during the country's three-decade civil war, and were arrested themselves.

Most recently, she documented the wreckage left by conflict in southern Sudan. "You don't stop being moved by it. I find I don't want to photograph any more dead babies. Half the time, you don't deal with it: you walk away and you end up feeling guilty. I find it really hard to go back to Rwanda," she says. "You feel that the world isn't a just place: sometimes you feel you are hitting people over the head with it and being heavy about ... but there's a corner of our lives where we can deal with it. I have been very impressed by how ordinary people will take a bit of time to respond."

Dissatisfied with the ephemeral nature of single shots, she put together a wall-hanging depicting genocide survivors. "You would like to be able to change the world with pictures; you know that you can't, but if something isn't represented, you don't have something for the public to respond to." Her exhibition begins with a photograph of a Vietnamese child born 10 years after the war, with no eyes, a defect caused by the substance Agent Orange in the ecosystem, which had been sprayed out of US planes. "To meet a child suffering those after-effects showed how wars don't just finish; they have repercussions," she says.

In 1990, she realised the central theme of pictures shot in Asia, Latin America and Africa was the women who held together their families in the midst of the bombing and despair. "I became interested in the women bringing up children with a background of conflict, and the tremendous responsibility women have. In a way, it's not different from living in the inner city; the same sort of concerns, but more heightened."

It is not a cliche, she says, that children bring hope. "The whole thing of children is so important to women. They have a very strong sense of the future, because you know there is a next generation that you are very personally responsible for. In order to get through, you have to know that things will get better"

`Jenny Matthews: Women In Conflict', Freedom Forum, Stanhope House, Stanhope Place, London W2 (0171-262 5003). Opens 7 September

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