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Jonathan Torgovnik <br class="br_visual" />on Sierra Leone’s <br class="br_visual" />‘Girl Soldiers’

Jonathan Torgovnik
on Sierra Leone’s
‘Girl Soldiers’

© Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage
by Getty Images

July 2014

Photojournalist Jonathan Torgovnik is no stranger to covering post-conflict issues in Africa, having cemented his reputation with his project ‘Intended Consequences’, with harrowing portraits of Rwandan women who had been raped during the genocide of the mid-1990s. His recent project – ‘Girl Soldier’ – focuses on former female child soldiers who were forced by rebels to participate in the civil war in Sierra Leone. CPN Editor-in-Chief Steve Fairclough spoke to Jonathan Torgovnik about ‘Girl Soldier’ and the story behind the haunting portraits and powerful multimedia piece that came out of it.

Originally commissioned by The Telegraph Magazine, (in the UK), ‘Girl Soldier’ concentrates on the stories of eight women from the village of Binkolo, which is situated about 200 kilometres from Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown. They were abducted at a very young age from the village and forced to live with and fight alongside the rebels during the country’s civil war (which lasted from 1991 until 2002 at the cost of 50,000 lives). We are used to print, online and TV news outlets showing images and footage of young boys toting guns, or being trained to fight in wars, but it is estimated that in the civil war in Sierra Leone approximately 30% of the children involved in the conflict were girls between the ages of eight and 18.

© Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage by Getty Images

Please click on the window above to watch the film ‘Girl Soldier’, about girls who were forced to participate in the civil war in Sierra Leone.

Talking about the commission for ‘Girl Soldier’, Jonathan Torgovnik explains: “I suspect the Rwanda project had to do with it because it had to do with working with women who had sensitive stories [to tell] and portraiture. Cheryl Newman, the Photographic Director of The Telegraph Magazine, is a close friend, a colleague for many years, and I’ve done quite a lot of work for them. I hadn’t heard much about female child soldiers before so that’s why it’s quite a unique story to tell.”

He adds: “I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t really prepared to hear the level of brutality and the kind of [graphic] descriptions of what they went through. In my head I constantly had a lot of parallels to the Rwanda project, and stories from the genocide, but, here, what was really interesting was the whole other element of the fighting; of being forced to fight, kill people, maim people, burn houses and to just have this choice of ‘either you do it or you die’.”

Jonathan explains: “Rebels walked into villages with their weapons and just grabbed whoever they saw – young girls who looked attractive – they needed the women for cooking, cleaning and sex. It was as simple as that – just barbaric. They were taken into the bush not too far from the village – a radius of 15 to 50 kilometres – and from there they would do day or night missions to steal and kill; all of the horrors. In most of the villages they [the girls] went to they didn’t know the people but there were a couple [of women] who described when they had to go into villages and kill people they knew – now they feel bad about it and in fear of revenge.”

Intense and emotional interviews

Altogether Jonathan spent a week on the ground, during which he researched the story and spent five days shooting portrait stills and video interviews. He admits it was a challenge to try to capture the trauma of events that happened many years ago in a single picture. “I felt that collecting the testimonies and taking the portraits of them after quite intense and emotional interviews would be the way to do it. What helped me a little bit visually was that in the village many, many homes that were destroyed during the war are still there – just the remains – so I could bring the past back a little bit. I chose to photograph all of them near their [former] family homes.”

Jonathan adds: “It was quite a hectic, intense, week in terms of logistics but I wanted to push and try to make it happen. As you can see in the results, these short multimedia films are quite powerful when you have the actual subjects that you photograph speaking about their experiences.”

He explains: “What was interesting for me was, in this case, they actually spoke English – most of the time I have to have an interpreter. This was very helpful in terms of having that direct connection for the interviews and also, for the video, it was quite powerful to hear them in their own words rather than it being narrated or dubbed.”

© Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage by Getty Images

Laura Conteh, who was abducted by rebels at the age of 12, pictured near the remains of her family's home that was destroyed by rebels during the war. She was raped and forced to become a child soldier for many years. Laura recalls: "The rebels burned our house. I was a young girl, but I saw it for myself. The rebels captured us. They raped us that day on Christmas morning. The war is over now. We live in peace now. We live with our brothers that were captured (rebels). They have nowhere to go. The only way to survive is by living with them." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM zoom lens at a focal length of 41mm; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/6.3, ISO 250.

Jonathan shot all of the filmed interviews with an EOS 5D Mark II DSLR and an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens. He recorded the interview audio with a separate recorder with the audio being synched later on in the production process. For the audio on his B-roll footage he used a Rode microphone connected to the 5D Mark II’s mic connector.

He notes: “I realised that, for this film, I didn’t care if there were a lot of ‘talking heads’ because what they were saying was so intense and I wanted to see them saying it. I just pushed the limits and tried to do as much as I could and bring in some interaction with the girls. One day they met up as a group and I just set up my cameras and let them talk, and do their thing, and tried to get a little bit of their daily life.”

He reveals: “I did the interviews in two locations – one was a church and I felt the echo was too big, so I needed a more contained place. I found a house that was under construction and used window light. I didn’t use any kind of lighting for the interviews – just natural light coming in.”

For ‘Girl Soldier’ Jonathan collaborated with freelance multimedia producer Andrew Hida, who was hired to work on the project by Reportage by Getty Images (the agency that represents Jonathan). Jonathan explains: “He had a big task on his hands to take all this raw material: the transcripts of the interviews, the video footage and the audio recordings – after I de-briefed him he had to start putting it together as a story. We worked back and forth remotely – he was in New York and I was in South Africa.”

Jonathan adds: “He [Andrew] worked on a first edit and I gave him my comments; we discussed a few things that I felt were missing or which needed to be changed. Then we did a second edit [and worked] until we got to the place where we felt that it [the film] was where it needed to be. I liked that collaboration with him – it can sometimes be a challenge if someone doesn’t have the same ideas as you. But, with Andrew, it was really amazing – I think he did a great job in communicating the stories of these girls.”

The portrait set-ups

For the portrait shots Jonathan used an EOS-1D X DSLR and an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM zoom lens. He adds: “For lighting I used Profoto packs with a softbox; professional lights, so that all the portraits were lit. I used the EF35mm f/1.4L USM lens for some extra stills and atmosphere pictures. I was alone carrying a Profoto pack, a Profoto head, a light stand, extra batteries for the Profoto pack, two cameras, four lenses and a tripod for the video camera – with all this equipment it was not easy.”

Jonathan’s workflow was also dictated by the harsh daylight in Sierra Leone: “The thing is that in those areas during the day, close to the equator, the light is quite harsh so I tried to work [on portraits] early in the morning and late in the afternoon and in between I did the [filmed] interviews. A lot of the interviews were done around midday when the sun was really bright outside but it pours really beautiful light in if you are inside an interior. I work a lot in the midday light, gathering whatever materials I need to do then, in the early morning or late afternoon, I try to do the portraits or reportage.”

© Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage by Getty Images

Sinnah Kalokah, who was abducted by rebels at age 10, pictured near her family's home. She was forced to become a child soldier and kill innocent civilians. Sinnah remembers: "We patrolled at night, and attacked villages. We would go very far and kill people. If you would be lucky to die, you would die. When the war ended and I returned to my village, the people in our town said to me: 'You killed people during the war, and now you come for forgiveness? Not here'. They said, 'you are a rebel'." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM zoom lens at a focal length of 50mm; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/6.3, ISO 200.

For his own safety Jonathan stayed at a little guesthouse about an hour’s drive from Binkolo and had to travel back and forth each day – on a scooter taxi with all his equipment packed in a backpack – early in the morning and then late in the afternoon before it was completely dark. He explains: “Because it was a portrait project with interviews in a village I was able to do it by myself – in other cases I would need another person [an assistant] with me to help out. I had a ‘moto taxi’ guy with a little scooter who took me around, so [when needed] he could stay with my gear so I didn’t have to worry about it.”

Levels of acceptance

The look and feel of the portraits for ‘Girl Soldier’ have echoes of Jonathan’s previous work in Rwanda and he admits: “In a lot of my work I’m very interested in post-conflict issues and the long-term consequences of war; of genocide; of sexual violence. Here when they [the women] came back many years later the villagers that stayed in the village looked at them as rebels because they felt that they were brainwashed. They knew that they killed people and were basically collaborating with the rebels. Obviously they didn’t have a choice – it was something that was forced upon them – so it took a long time for them to re-integrate and not be ridiculed by their village and ostracised.”

In Binkolo the then village chief had been quite sensitive to what the women were going through and he slowly helped with sensitising the community and making them understand that what happened to the women was not their fault. As Jonathan explains: “In these type of cultures when the village chief gives a judgment people have to respect it, even if they like it or not.”

He adds: “Many of them came back with children and, in some of these cultures, it’s quite difficult to have a husband after you come back with a child that was born from rape; born to the enemy; born to the rebels; and have a kind of normal relationship with someone and re-build your family. Some were able to do this and some could not. Some are still quite traumatised about what happened, so it was interesting to see how long this healing takes. But it seemed to me, just from spending that week with them, walking around with them in the village, I didn’t see any issues in terms of people ridiculing them or challenging them – they were walking proud and they were not shying away from anything.”

© Jonathan Torgovnik/Reportage by Getty Images

Kadiatsu Koroma, who was abducted by rebels when she was 13-years-old, pictured near the remains of her family's home that was destroyed by rebels during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM zoom lens at a focal length of 50mm; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/6.3, ISO 200.

So, have the women managed come to terms with the terrible things that have happened to them? Jonathan replies: “I feel that it’s something that’s in their being; something that can never go away – like going through a holocaust or a genocide. It will never go away. They are poor; they come from a very small village and they live off the land. In environments like that you need to think about the day-to-day [living] rather than the long-term plan. I felt that they try to make the best out of it; they are definitely trying to deal with it and trying to move on as much as they can. It’s in their conscious – they have nightmares; they have a lot of thoughts and fears. Sometimes when they’re in the house and they hear noises outside it brings back the instinct that someone is there to get them.”

The women have formed support groups in order to help each other. Jonathan explains: “The support groups they have with each other are the most helpful because they exchange stories – everybody thinks their life is the worst and then they see other women have similar challenges and this kind of makes them feel better about themselves. Together they try to stay strong.”

When asked if anything sticks in his mind about the ‘Girl Soldier’ project, Jonathan admits: “I was really, really impressed by the strength of these women after all they went through. Not only the years of abuse and of being forced to do terrible things but coming out of that and still being strong, raising their children and trying to have a life. I didn’t meet broken women – I met strong women.”

Biographie: Jonathan Torgovnik

Jonathan Torgovnik

Jonathan Torgovnik was born in Israel, graduated with a BFA degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York and is based in South Africa. His images have been published in many magazines, including The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, GQ, GEO, The Sunday Times Magazine, Stern and Paris Match. He has authored two books: ‘Bollywood Dreams; An Exploration of the Motion Picture Industry, and it's Culture in India’ and ‘Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape’. His award-winning photographs have been included in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the USA and Europe and his multimedia film ‘Intended Consequences’ won the duPont Columbia University Journalism Award and a Webby Award. He is the co-founder of Foundation Rwanda, an NGO initiative that supports secondary school education for children born of rape during the Rwandan genocide. He became a Canon Explorer in December 2012.


Sally Koroma, who was abducted by rebels when she was 11, pictured near her family's home. She was forced to be a child soldier and kill innocent civilians, and was subjected to sexual violence. Sally says: "When I think about what the rebels have done to me, they stole my body, I don't know what to do... I will never forget that history. I will continue to talk about that history until my death.” Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM zoom lens at a focal length of 50mm; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/6.3, ISO 250.