PROFILE: COVER PHOTOGRAPHER
Documenting Women’s Bodies as Battlefield
By Daniela Cohen
Published April 2023
Born in Italy, Cinzia Canneri started photography at a young age, but her 20-year career as a psychologist in a hospital and raising her two daughters prevented her from continuing. Yet photography stayed in her mind and heart, and once her daughters were older, Canneri resumed her art, becoming a photojournalist.
Her first project, “Like two wings,” in 2016 documented the effects of asbestos on workers and their families, who she said, “breathe the dust of asbestos in the house because of the clothes of their husbands….” Published in the New York Times Lens Blog, this work won two awards.
Canneri then decided to use her privilege to highlight social issues in places previously colonized by her country. This, together with her desire to understand why most Eritrean refugees arriving in Italy were men, led her to travel to the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2017. Initially, she documented women fleeing Eritrea, which she called “the second worst dictatorship after North Korea.” Canneri named their immigration experience “the still journey,” explaining that women’s journeys can last up to 20 years or even a lifetime because they decide to remain in Africa, often at the border, because they have children and are waiting for their husbands.
Following the invasion of Tigray by the Ethiopian federal army supported by the Eritrean military forces and Amhara militia in November 2020, Canneri expanded her focus to include Tigrinya women, documenting the sexual violence perpetrated by the Eritrean army against both Eritrean and Tigrinya women escaping to Sudan or Addis Ababa.
“Sexual violence was used against Eritrean women because they escaped that country, against Tigrinya women because they wanted to exterminate them,” Canneri said. “Systematic targeting of women’s bodies has come to light as being a strategy during war.”
She said that sexual violence is also prevalent in peace time, because of the paternalistic culture women are living in. There is “cultural acceptance of this violence against women’s bodies because they are vulnerable, because they cannot speak out for themselves,” said Canneri.
Canneri’s work is a way to give these women a voice. “Even though words are not spoken, … there’s such a strength of voice about what is taking place for these women in a time of war, a time of peace, yet both are so violent,” she said. “When we’re looking at the Eritrean women and also the Tigrinya women, there is no division between ‘our women’ and ‘their women’. They are women and … sex is being used as a tool to punish.”
For Canneri, it is important to also document these women’s strength, as they raise their children in this context and support each other across ethnicities. In one of her photos, Eritrean and Tigrinya women are seen praying together for their children.
In the cover photo for this issue of ZEKE, a woman who recently arrived at Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan with her two children holds a religious pendant from her husband left behind, telling Canneri, “It is the only object I have of my past life.”
Canneri wants to raise awareness that true peace needs to go beyond political agreements to respect human rights, with the first step recognizing the victims and the sexual violence using women’s bodies as a battlefield.