Ann-Christine Woehrl, Photographer
Witches in Exile
Spotlight interview with photographer Ann-Christine Woehrl
By Hazel Clarke
I met Ann-Christine Woehrl during Art Basel 2022 at the launch of her exhibition at Praxis Gallery (Bäumleingasse 9, Basel), entitled ‘Witches in Exile’. Woehrl, born in 1975 and of French-German origin, has gained international recognition for her cutting socio-cultural-political works that have taken her around the globe from Latin America, Africa and Asia. I interview her in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the art fair in 90 degree heat, but despite the frenzy around us, the impact of her words is not lost. We start with her motivations and inspirations for the project.
'I needed to do something that made sense to me and could deeply affect other people'
‘I was torn between music and photography when I was younger, and even wanted to become a jazz pianist, explains Woehrl, ‘but quickly realised that I needed to do something that made sense to me and could deeply affect people or serve a purpose. I therefore chose photography. For me, it can’t be creation for creation sake!’
I discover that the exhibition is accompanied by a book and is the culmination of extensive research undertaken between 2009 and 2013. ‘With the publishing of the book, Woehrl says, ‘the project has experienced a ‘renaissance’.' She also tells me that as a result of the years of collaboration, with her gallerist Anja Pinter-Rawe, who edited the book and who was the first to show ‘Witches in Exile' as a solo-exhibition in her former gallery Pinter & Milch in Berlin-Mitte in 2013, this work started to be recognised internationally with shows in Brazil and Cambodia.
‘In the early days, there were approximately twenty-five photos, but now with the book we have extended the number of portraits for the book to fifty. A selection was shown last year at Stadthaus Ulm and at Rawe’s new exhibition space at Spreestudios, LEPI Art in collaboration with ARTCO Gallery in Germany.’
'The exhibition and book are fundamentally about stigma and the suffering that it causes, she continues. 'The topic is not new, but some themes need the right moment to surface on the consciousness of audiences and now certainly feels like the right time.’
Coming from a photo-journalistic background, Woehrl informs me that her initial goal with this project was to give the women ‘their voices back’ and to push perceptions of them beyond their collective stigma.
I ask about the origins of the project and she explains that working with the deeply oppressed Dalit women of India cemented her path towards the theme of injustice.
‘I had also been reading about the random outcasting of people from communities and the resultant stigma placed on those individuals. I’m very sensitive to any form of segregation or outcasting or indeed issues relating to injustice’ she adds. Her long-term projects entitled ‘IN/VISIBLE’ on women worldwide overcoming acid attacks followed, among other projects.
We explore some earlier memories and she recounts a story some years back about a friend who had been severely disfigured through a fire as a child. ‘We were at a social gathering and no one was able to handle his presence which rendered him completely ‘invisible’. ‘That moment had a profound impact on me. It opened my eyes to how we all can be afraid to face someone who may be considered different. For my friend it was his burnt face, for the women in Ghana it’s the spell that has been cast on them. Both examples reveal how we as a society can deepen a person’s scars. It’s not about the outer ‘scars’, she adds, ‘it’s about how we can injure an outcast even more. This is omnipresent in all societies.’
'Trust could only be established through being amongst the people'
It took Woehrl several visis to Ghana to complete the project. ‘The witch camps are secluded and are controlled by the village Chief. I needed an audience with him to present my idea. Without his consent, there would be no project.’
Her proposal won its approval through the mediation of Simon Ngota, a local villager who had been amongst the women for many years. Aware of the their struggles for survival, he founded Witch-Hunt Victims Empowerment Project (WHVEP), an NGO aimed at supporting their wellbeing.
'Simon was my mediator and translator. The women had
trust in him and his intervention was essential in
establishing the confidence in the project. They opened up
and were ready to tell their stories. Trust could only be
established through being amongst the people and creating personal relationships.'
Woehrl explains that this devastating accusation can befall a person for a variety of arbitrary reasons, ‘It’s women who tend to be stigmatised in this way. Older women are particularly at risk due to their lower status within the family. The accusation can stem from a dream or if someone’s family member falls sick or even from jealousy issues, for example to eliminate the competition if a person is successful in the market. Basically, it’s used as a method to explain things that cannot be controlled.’
She describes how the women themselves succumb to the notion that they are witches. ‘Some of the women actually accept they are witches because the belief system doesn’t allow them to have another opinion of themselves. They just surrender to their fate.’
‘Despite their collective stigma, being in a community also strengthens them. They feel protected in a way. Sharing the same faith helps them to survive emotionally,' states Woehrl.
The women featured in the portraits are those that managed to make it to the witch camps and I learn that there are seven in Northern Ghana. It seems that many of them sadly die on their way because they are brutally attacked. She cites a case in 2020 where a woman branded as a witch was killed publicly.
I ask about their individual stories and Woehrl tells me about Nlogi Waakpan who assumed the role of ‘magazia’ (group leader). She explains how Nlogi had been almost beaten to death and that she had managed to escape and made it to the camp. ‘Her granddaughter joined her to live in the camp which eased family relations and with the support of Simon, she was able to eventually reintegrate back into the village. However, at first she would never stay the night for fear of being accused once again.’
'Despite their collective stigma the community strengthens them'
Nlogi Waskpan assumed the role of 'magazia'
'What would happen if the camps did not exist?'
Woehrl also recounts the story of Labi, another outcast who was suffering from dementia and whom the WHVEP had tried to reintegrate into her own environment. Her illness however, was sufficient a reason to accuse her of having caused death within her surroundings. ‘The NGO has the clear intention to reconnect the women to their own community because within the closed witch camps, they live in isolation and are totally cut-off from emotional relationships,' says Woehrl. ‘Simon and I accompanied Labi to her village and you could feel the hate and tension amongst the villagers. They were completely wrapped up in their belief system. It took a while for Labi’s family to realise she was sick and that as a family, given her deteriorating state, they had a responsibility to take care of her and that the witch camp could not fulfil this role.’
‘What would happen to those women if the camps did not exist?’ Woehrl asks rhetorically. ‘It’s an unsolved issue in Ghana and is raised every time the elections come up!’
We move on to talk about the living conditions in the camps. Woehrl describes the tough environment endured by the women and their obligation to work every day in the fields for the village Chief. ‘For him, this cheap, daily labour is convenient and is justified through the perspective that he is helping the women, but controlling them and thus protecting his village from their powers.’
I ask whether the women still have hopes and dreams or aspire to a better life. Woehrl responds ‘Whilst they accept their fate, you can see in my portraits that there are different states of mind. You observe what they have been through and how they each deal with it. The wounds are there but each woman overcomes them differently. For sure, you can perceive the sadness in their faces but you also detect in some of the portraits, a resilience, a defiance, a pride. These are the different shades of emotions that they are going through.’
'The wounds are there but each woman overcomes them differently'
I learn that they certainly have some joy in their lives. ‘When I stayed in the village, recounts Woehrl, 'I discovered there were some very cheerful moments. The women sang at night when they were cooking. You could sense their joy at being together. At some point they accept their ‘sentence’, and they try to lead their lives as best they can. And that’s probably their strength.’
'The women felt acknowledged for the first time'
‘Taking the portraits left a lasting impression on me’ recalls Woehrl. ‘I could sense that the women felt acknowledged for the first time. I could feel they celebrated this moment of being seen for themselves. That touched me greatly and encouraged me to continue with the project.’
The portraits are indeed stunning. Depicted in bright coloured cotton clothing accented by a dark backdrop, the women exude not only a multitude of emotions but also a delicate and colourful beauty. ‘The idea of the black backdrop was to give the women a sort of protective frame, explains Woehrl. ‘The black is strong and atmospheric and focuses the viewer’s attention on the women’s personalities rather than their surroundings. It’s not about the witch camp or society, it’s about the women as individuals.’
I probe further on their personalities and Woehrl explains they were each quite different. ‘One had a lightness and a playfulness. Damu, the woman on the cover of the book appears sad but she was also very thoughtful and had a proud presence.’
Woehrl reveals that the photoshoots took place in the evening after the women had returned from the field. ‘I had to wait, and then photograph the women within the hour before the light faded.’
Witches in Exile Book
It is clear the exhibition aims to portray the women through a fresh lens, to shift beliefs and raise awareness of the issue. 'Maybe through photographing them, I can give them some encouragement but as a photographer from Europe, I am compelled to think beyond myself and my photography,’ she says.
This is borne out in Woehrl’s commitment to establish a longterm collaboration with that WHVEP that will help support it financially so that it can continue with its important work of alleviating the living conditions of the women and facilitating their reintegration into their communities. She is also donating ten per cent of the proceeds of each photograph and five per cent of the book sales to WHVEP.
The intention of Woehrl and her collaborators in the book, the Ghanaian artist Rania Odaymat and the Ghanaian lawyer, Maakor Quarmyne who wrote the text of the book, is not to be directly critical, but to initiate dialogue within society so that changes that need to be made come from inside Ghanaian culture. ‘The Ghanaian Government needs to realise that the outside world knows about this issue so that they feel compelled to do something. We are bringing this into focus in a very modest sense but at least it kicks off the internal debate. We now plan to stage the exhibition in Ghana and work jointly with Rania Odaymat and her 'Beyond' artist collective in a more synergistic manner,’ she adds.
As the interview draws to a close, I feel a glimmer of hope for the victimised women. In part due to the valuable work undertaken by WHVEP that brings them much needed shelter, refuge and a degree of safety. Of course, this disturbing tale of ‘witches' is one of many stories of oppression that have found a voice through art. And there lies further hope. The portraits depict the overwhelming dignity and perseverance of the women who have been stigmatised, marginalised and persecuted. Woehrl’s photography unmutes their voices helping them to lift the spell cast on them by society and shine a light on an injustice that might otherwise have stayed engulfed in taboo. Who in this context is the real ‘witch’ one wonders?
Ann-Christine Woehrl is recipient of the Silver Award of the Deutche PhotobucherPreis for the book “WITCHES IN EXILE”, Stuttgart, Germany (2021) and has been shortlisted for the Eiger Foundation African Photo Book Award.
The Latest showing of Witches in Exile is at the Centre Culturel Francais, Freiburg, I'm Kornhaus, Munsterplatz, 11 Freibourg, Germany. Vernissage 20 April 2923 1900
If you miss the show in Freiburg, it will also feature at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich from Autumn 2023 until Spring 2024.
To purchase the book which is priced at 45 euros, or any of the limited edition prints, please visit www.witches-in-exile.art where you can find further information on the project and make a donation to the the WHVEP.