Proud Women of Africa: the Beginning

Co-authored by Nick Schönfeld.

In 2008, my world changed. After a decade working as a spark on commercials and feature films in the Netherlands I'd had enough. Like so many people my age (thirty-something), I found myself stuck in a job I no longer enjoyed. It made me miserable. So I decided I needed a change of scenery. I packed my bags and flew to Cape Town, South Africa. Why Cape Town? Because it was pretty much as far away as I could get.

I found a job working for a production company, scouting locations and preparing budgets for big European commercials that wanted to shoot in South Africa. Here I met Philipa, strong, stubborn, a beautiful person. We immediately became friends.

Shortly after we met she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Together we decided that I would photograph every stage of her illness so that, once she'd recovered, she could share what she had gone through with the world. We decided to call it 'Philipa's Story'.

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For the next four years, Philipa let me document her fight against cancer. I followed her through all her treatments; chemo therapy, radiation, a mastectomy, operations. Throughout all this time I don't ever remember Philipa giving up, not even when the cancer spread to her brain, and she had to shave her head for a second time.

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No matter what, she wanted to stay strong, something she was keen on making sure my pictures showed. Philipa passed away in February 2012, and although she eventually succumbed to her illness, she did not go willingly. In life, she never let it define her.

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What turned out to be the end of Philipa's life was also the beginning of Proud Women of Africa. Philipa's determination and tenacity during her battle against cancer not only inspired me to turn her pictures into a series (part of which you can find below), it also inspired me to look for other women in Africa who lived life with the same pride. In the past 5 years I have travelled through sub-saharan Africa to photograph some of these proud women. In South Africa, in Rwanda, in townships, deserts, hospitals. One story led me to the next.

All of the women in my pictures have suffered in some way: they've been ostracized by society, are desperately poor, or have experienced terrible injustice. But, just like Philipa, they do not let their predicaments define them. These women, who might be victims, certainly do not see themselves that way. They are proud. Strong. Defiant. They are activists, community workers, revolutionaries and fighters. These women want to be portrayed as they see themselves. As proud women of Africa.

In the coming months, I will post five more parts of Proud Women of Africa on this blog, along with new work as I create it. I hope you find these pictures as inspiring as I found taking them.

Julia